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Blood doesn’t really look red.

That’s what I thought as I stared at the table at the police station, scratching absentmindedly at the surface with my thumbnail. There were two other people in the room but they were standing near the door, whispering to each other. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I didn’t care.

All I could think about was that gunshot. How the side of Coach Walburn’s head exploded. How his body immediately went limp and he toppled over, landing near my feet. How the kids, a moment before so joyous and playful, fled to their parents, screaming and crying. How I wished I could have joined of standing frozen, staring at the body.

That was what got me thinking about blood. It looked more black than red against the snow. Is it different in different parts of the body? When I get a cut, the blood usually looks red and his looked it was everything else. There was other stuff leaking out of his head, some bits of his brain floating in the puddles of blood…

I seized the bucket they had brought in for me and vomited into it. Just thinking about what I saw…My stomach heaved violently and the bile felt like fire in my throat as I heaved dry.

One of the officers, his face a blur to me, turned. “You okay, Jack?”

How did he know my name? I dimly wondered this as I puked again, my hands shaking violently on the rim of the bucket. It hurt like crazy but trying to keep it down just made it worse. I couldn’t stop thinking about the way his body suddenly went at my feet…the snow speckled with splashes of blood…

Oh, God, let me stop thinking about the blood.

I finally emptied what little there was in my stomach and put the bucket down, wiping my mouth with the sleeve of my hoodie. I could feel myself panting and desperately tried to control my breathing. Any more and I felt like I was going to pass out. I managed to gasp. Not exactly true but it’s not like I could just sit here forever.

The officer sat down across the table from me. “Do you remember me?” he asked.

I slowly dragged my eyes up to his face. It was a familiar face, one that took me back to a certain incident at school… “Officer Bennett?” I said slowly.

He smiled and nodded. “Good memory.” He turned and gestured at the second man, who was dressed in plainclothes and carrying a notepad. “This is Dr. Fitzsimmons. He’s here just in case.”

“In case what?” I asked, acknowledging the doctor with a flick of my eyes. My voice sounded hollow and I was aware that my body was completely stiff. My stomach was churning, vomit barely held down.

“Just in case,” Dr. Fitzsimmons said gently, sitting down next to me, “What you easy to process.” I made a neutral sound.

“I’ve called your parents,” Bennett said gently, on their way.”

I replied dully.

“Until then, I would like to ask you some questions. Don’t worry,” he said quickly, “This isn’t an interrogation. We just want to get a sense of…what />

“He shot himself.” It was a simple statement. So simple. In the blink of an eye, a life had ended. And I had watched it.

“Did you know him?” Bennett asked, pulling out his notepad.

“He used to be my gym teacher. He got fired a few months ago.”

“What for?”

“He made me and another kid wrestle each other in class.”

Bennett raised an eyebrow and made a note. “And was that the last time you saw him? Heard of him?”

Robotic responses. That was all I could offer.

“Did he say anything to you? Did he say why />

I remembered everything he said. His words were etched into my brain. Maybe permanently. But I didn’t want to repeat them. If I did…it would just draw me back into the memory, make it more of a reality. “Something about his family,” I muttered, “He lost them />

Bennett made another note then glanced up at Dr. Fitzsimmons. “Anything to ask, Doc?”

Dr. Fitzsimmons look at me for a second, then leaned in slowly. “How are you feeling, Jack?” he asked simply.

was the automatic response I wanted to give but my brain wouldn’t allow it. It latched onto the questions and forced me to mull it over. How was I feeling? How…was I watched a man blow his brains out. A man I had known and respected as one of my teachers. He was dead…I had watched a life end. A life that had been a story. He had grown up, gone to school, gotten married, had a child, watched him grow…Hell, he’d lived the same number of years I had twice. All of that…one pull of the trigger and it stopped.

It was the end…

I looked at Fitzsimmons. “I’m gonna puke,” I said, before grabbing the bucket and vomiting into it again.

Fitzsimmons didn’t scoop back. He just waited until I was done before saying, “You didn’t answer my />

I took a deep, shuddering breath and said, “I feel like shit. What can I say? I just watched a guy his brains out. Not many other ways to feel about that.”

He nodded. What do you think about that?”

The hell? “Think about it? What, suicide? His />

/>

What the hell did I say to that? “I don’t sucks. I mean, it shouldn’t have happened. I do I think about him committing />

“Do you think you could have helped him?”

Again…how do I answer that? “I tried,” I replied, scratching the tabletop harder, “I told him I could take him somewhere. He wouldn’t let me.”

“Do you think that would have helped?”

“It would have been something. Why are you asking me this stuff?”

His gaze was steady. “What do you mean?”

like you’re trying to make me feel worse. What do you want to ask? If I’m thinking about suicide too?”

“Are you?”

“No.” Feeling was starting to flood back into me. I was feeling angry. “Why should I? Did you see him? All that blood and his brains and…Those kids…Doc, I’ve got a family! A girlfriend! Why the hell would I want to leave all that?”

“Many people who have done it said the exact same thing.”

His calm attitude was really getting to me. I glared at him. “Well, I’m not them, okay? I’m not them. I’ve never thought about it.”

He nodded slowly. Understandingly. “What are you feeling right now?”

I looked over at Bennett. this supposed to be confidential stuff?” I asked, />

Fitzsimmons looked at me for a second, then turned to Bennett. “I think he’s clear.” Bennett nodded.

“Clear for what?” I demanded.

“Clear to go,” Bennett said with a small smile, “Just as soon as your family gets here.”

“I am…so />

Fitzsimmons stood. “Trauma is very common after seeing something like that. Everyone reacts He turned to Bennett again. “Would you like me to stick around?”

“Just until the family arrives,” Bennett replied.

Fitzsimmons smiled at me and held out a card. “If you want to talk about it…or about anything, let me know.”

I muttered, taking the card. He nodded to Bennett, then left. up with him?” I asked.

Bennett leaned back and scratched his scalp. “Just an odd duck. He’s good, though. If you want to talk to He jabbed his finger at retreating back.

/>

Back to silence. I didn’t like it. At least when they were talking to me, I had something to focus on. Now all I could think about was Bennett’s uniform. How it was like the uniforms of the other cops at the scene…the ones who put a hand on my shoulder and led me away from the…from the…

My stomach heaved and I gagged into the bucket. Nothing came out. It was just an extra painful heave that felt like my stomach was trying to crush itself. I had to gasp for air afterwards.

“Do you want something?” Bennett asked, frowning in sympathy, “We got a vending machine and there’s probably some leftover breakfast stuff lying around.”

I shook my head, still panting and clutching at my stomach. I’ve never been kicked by a horse but I’d say the feeling was pretty close.

“I’m serious,” Bennett said, gesturing out the door, “If you want />

I shook my head again. I managed to get out. My head was pounding. I put my head on my arms, trying to will the headache to go away. If only it was so understanding. My brain thumped against my skull, the reverberations running all the way down to my feet. Again, I hadn’t felt it yet, but I was pretty sure this was what a hangover was like.

It didn’t feel good. Was drinking really so good that it was worth this feeling? Well…maybe college will provide the answer.

The door opened. a voice said somewhere in the dark above my head, “The family is here.”

Bennett replied and I heard the scrape of his chair against the ground. He put a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Jack.”

I let myself be led out. I just about willing to do anything right now, as long as there was someone else there. To be left have to start thinking about it. I mean, I’d probably have But not now. Not yet. I felt Dr. card in my hand and shoved it in my pocket.

I’d never been inside a police station before and I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. It’s not like on TV, with cops bustling back and forth everywhere in half-lit rooms. If anything, it reminded me more of an office building: the crisp white tables, computers, and freshly-painted walls all gave the impression of courteous professionalism. I guess you could argue that’s exactly what cops are but, well…tell that to the media and see how interested they are.

Everything seemed fairly calm, for the most part. Day before surprising. I kinda figured things would be crazy, what with the heightened emotions and stress of the holiday, but no. Fairly calm and quiet. There were even decorations hung on the walls. Never imagined cops as the most festive people but, again, the news is more interested when they blow someone’s head off.

Blow />

Fuck…

I shook my head, trying to clear it of the image, but it stayed latched on. All these people…one gunshot and everything they were doing would end. Everything they could be…over in an instant. And what if they didn’t see it coming? What if…

Every breath was pressing against a weight that had lodged right under my neck, squeezing painfully against my chest bone. The same sort of feeling I got right before I told Kayla what had happened with Tara. Was I afraid? Maybe…but of what? I’d already seen it happen. It was done. Now I just…

Had to deal with it.

I stopped. Bennett stopped as well and turned to me, a frown on his face. up?” he asked.

I put a hand against the wall to steady myself. I would have to face seen someone shoot themselves. Seen their life leave. Gone. Oh my God…

The shot echoed in my head and I saw the side of Walburn’s head explode, snapping to the side before he crumpled over, his arm slamming down with no more strength to hold it up.

I couldn’t get it stop seeing it…

Couldn’t />

“I need some help!” I heard Bennett shout, somewhere beyond the haze that had clouded my vision.

I felt strong hands on my arms. Why? I was I? I couldn’t feel my legs.

Couldn’t />

My throat was closed. Shit. I tried to force myself to breathe but every breath hit that knot and wouldn’t go past it. Shit shit shit! My arms, until then limp and lifeless, suddenly sprung to life as I flailed for air, feeling my hands strike walls and bodies as the panic set in.

I couldn’t me…

Hands grabbed my arms and I felt something being placed over my mouth. What was that? Paper? Someone was speaking to me, talking directly into my ear. Blood was rushing through my head, turning the words to static, but I could hear the I latched onto it, desperate for something to cool down the panic that had me as terrified as when the gun had come out.

The knot in my chest loosened and some air exploded out. I tried to gasp for air, desperate to fill my lungs again, but the intake was restricted. My lungs felt only half full and, for a moment, the panic set in again. I heaved in and out as the hands held me tight, the voice continuing to speak calmly in my ear. I wish I could make out what they were saying. If it was calm, I needed it.

Gradually my breathing slowed, my lungs no longer screaming for air and accepting what they got. The world swam back into focus, the haze in front of my eyes lifting away so I could see, to my embarrassment, that at least a dozen people were hovering over me with expressions of concern. I tried to speak but my throat immediately closed up again and the panicking came back.

said a familiar voice by my ear, “Just breathe. Don’t think about anything else. Just />

think about breathing. Okay. I can do that.

My throat relaxed and I could breathe again, fighting hard to make sure I didn’t start huffing and puffing again. I heard a crinkling sound and glanced down to see that one of the officers was holding a paper bag against my mouth. Well, that would explain the rationed air. It filled and deflated with my breaths, the frequency slowing as I fought to get control of myself. My heart was still thudding like crazy and the pressure in my head felt like someone was trying to physically shove a bullet through it…but I was calming.

Slowly, very slowly, my breaths returned to normal and the officer removed the bag from my mouth. The first intake of free air was a little overwhelming but I rationed it right. Not too much. Thank God. The officers around me helped me to my feet and leaned me against the wall.

“Good job.”

It was that voice that had been speaking in my ear. I looked up to see Dr. Fitzsimmons looking down at me with a concerned expression I didn’t think he had been capable of having. He’d been so robotic before…The pressure in my head twinged and I dropped my head into my palm.

he said, putting a hand on my shoulder, “It’s going to be okay. This is normal. Don’t try to fight it.”

Fight what? “Fight what?” I managed to mutter.

“Feeling something. The harder you fight, the harder it will fight back to break free. If you have to shout, then shout. If you have to cry, then cry. Whatever you have to do.”

I took several shuddering breaths. don’t want to do />

“You can if you have to.”

“I know I can.” Obviously. What the hell was he talking about?

But, strangely enough, the pressure started to recede, like someone slowly pulling off a bandage. My heart slowed, leaving a good-sized bruise on my breastbone behind. I took my hand off my face and looked up into his crisp, professional face, which looked very odd with the small smile creasing the mouth. he replied, nodding, can call me if you need to talk.”

Then, without saying anything else, he turned and walked away. Weird guy.

Bennett put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You okay to go, Jack?”

I replied, wondering why his question sounded so odd. It was straightforward but something about it />

“Good. Come on.”

He led me down a couple more hallways until we reached the reception area that I only dimly remembered from when we first came in. Mom, dad, and Alan were all sitting together on one of the benches and they flew at me as soon as I came into view. Mom and dad had me squished between them in a second, pressing against me so hard I could feel the kinks in my back crackling like firecrackers. It felt good. Hell, it felt like change from the last couple of hours.

I don’t know how long they held me but every moment I was between them, I felt safe. It was like I was removed from everything and I was a little kid again with my parents to protect me. As long as they were holding me, I was protected from all the bad and the pain and everything I’d been going through in the past day. But they had to let go. Very slowly, they pulled away from me and everything that had been held at bay came rushing back.

Alan, who had been standing in the background, stepped forward and gave me a big hug. Weird…I don’t remember the last time he did that. I mean, yeah, we’re teenage and stuff, so we probably wouldn’t, but…

I put my arms around him too and hugged him tight.

I could hear our parents talking to Officer Bennett in the background but my ears didn’t register words. Frankly, registering anything was still kind of difficult. Even though I knew I was hugging Alan, my entire consciousness seemed isolated to a tiny spot in my eye while the rest of my body operated on its own. I was isolated even in my own body.

What the hell…

He slowly pulled back and tried to smile but could only manage a grimace. “I’m sorry, Jack,” he said, his voice muffled in my ears.

I replied, looking around, “Where are the girls?”

“Amanda went to get Tara from Kayla’s house after we got the call. Tara He paused and took a deep breath. “She was going a little crazy so Amanda stayed home to calm her down.”

I frowned. “Why was she going crazy? I didn’t get hurt.”

“Well, we got the call that you had seen someone get shot and…well, when mom told me I thought He sucked in his lips and looked down. “I thought you had gotten shot.”

They thought I…had gotten shot. The cops must have explained that one poorly. I mean, how do you get across the idea that I was shot when you’re trying to say that I saw a guy get shot? How do you make that mistake? Or…no, wait, he said he got that idea from mom. Well then how did mom say it? Did she say…

Alan looked up at me and my thoughts stopped dead. I saw in his eyes that he really did think, however briefly, that I had been shot. It was a look that broke my heart and I pulled him in again, holding him tight. Jesus Christ, I couldn’t even imagine what that must have been like. If something happened to him…it would fucking break me.

And Amanda…how had she reacted? Did she think the same thing? I know Tara…oh my God, Tara must have been in pieces. Especially after what happened.

And Kayla…What did she think? Did she think I’d been…well, what did she think? Her last memory of me would have been me on her porch, telling her that I had kissed another girl. What a way to go.

Fuck.

Mom and dad finished speaking with Bennett and they turned to me with forced smiles. all good, Jack,” dad said.

let you know if we need anything else,” Bennett said, nodding to me, “Take care of yourself, Jack. If you get on a first-name basis with me, we might have a />

I tried to smile. Key word being />

Mom put her arm around me and held me close the entire walk to the car. Nobody said anything. I’m sure they thought silence was what I wanted, so I could collect my thoughts, but as soon as the car door closed and I was rooted once again, the memories started coming back.

The screams of the kids…the blood on the snow…

I felt like I was going to puke again. I couldn’t think about that right now. I didn’t want to think about it ever. I turned to Alan. “Say something,” I muttered, the sour taste in my mouth preventing me from opening it wider.

“About what?” he asked, noticing my discomfort.

“Anything, just…I need noise, okay?”

He frowned but, thankfully, didn’t ask anything else. I have your room when you go to />

/>

“Not like you’re going to need it.”

two years away.”

“Enough time for me to look at />

I frowned at him. “What? My room isn’t good enough right now?”

“Besides smelling like you? Of course not!”

“I smell?”

“Everything smells, Jack. Way of nature and all that happy />

mom barked, turning around and glaring at him.

Alan replied, giving me a small grin, “Way of nature and all that joyful />

Mom slapped his knee. she growled between her teeth, flicking her eyes at me.

“He asked me to!”

“I did,” I acknowledged.

Mom looked at me for a second, then seemed to catch on. “No more swearing,” she said, pointing a sharp finger at Alan before turning around. Dad looked like he wanted to say something but mom just shook her head.

Alan, bless his heart, tried his best to make small talk the whole way home. To his credit, it kept my mind off…the stuff I didn’t want to think about. But I could also tell that it was wearing on him to, since he was doing it for me. He was trying to stop me from thinking about what had happened. I was trading out my discomfort for his.

I stared out the window the entire time. If I looked at him, I knew I’d see his distress and I’d stop him. Then I’d have to />

I had to be selfish.

It was a great relief to everyone when our house came into sight. We’d hardly pulled into the garage when the door to the house flung open and Tara came charging out, her face red and eyes glassy. She wrenched open my car door and dragged me out, squeezing me tighter than I thought I could stand. Her face was buried in my shoulder and I would have loved to return her hug…had she not be pinning my arms at my side.

She was still holding onto me as everyone else got out of the car. “Let him breathe, Tara,” dad said, trying to keep a light tone. She didn’t respond. “Am I going to need to get the />

Tara still refused to let go, holding me with almost painful tightness. I said softly, “I’m okay. Please let go.”

She shifted and slowly let her grip slacken, though she kept her face buried in my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around her and briefly pressed her to me before following my parents into the house.

Amanda was waiting inside and, in a move that I had become used to in the past hour or so, squeezed me in a hug that put fresh bruises on top of the old ones. Love hurts. What can I say?

Thankfully her hug was brief and she let go slowly, looking at me with almost adult concern, searching beyond my face for any sign of pain or distress. “I’m okay,” I said, trying to smile. It was a lie but I think we’re kind of expected to say it anything really.

She shook her head and bit her lip. I put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it briefly before walking past her. Right now, all I could think about was lying on my bed and Just doing nothing. If I could switch off my brain, I would. Think about school, that would probably help.

/>

I turned. Everyone was looking at me like they were afraid I was going to melt. I asked evenly.

They all glanced at each other. Well, all except for Tara. She was looking at the ground, her long hair hiding her face. I wished she would look up so I could give her a smile but her gaze stayed resolutely downwards.

Nobody else seemed like they wanted to speak so I turned back and headed towards the stairs. I knew they wanted to talk about it. Or, more accurately, they wanted me to talk about it. Fat chance. I was feeling sick enough as it was without remembering this morning. God, please don’t let them bring it up.

God held that promise until halfway up the stairs. Thanks, Big Guy. />

“What, mom?” I asked, not stopping.

I felt her take my hand. “Look, I know />

“No, mom,” I said, “You don’t. Please, just leave me alone.”

She pulled back, looking hurt, and dad stepped in to take her place. “Jack, you need to talk about this.”

“No, I />

let’s just go to my office and sit />

There it was. In one sentence, I realized why Officer Bennett asking me if I was okay sounded so weird. It was because, for the last day, not a single person really asked me that. They demanded that I sit down, that I talk to them, that I get everything out in the open. Not a single one asked me if I was okay. They didn’t want to know how I was feeling; they just assumed that I needed to get it out. Well, even if I did, I should decide that, not them.

Normally, this might have just mildly irritated me. The way I was feeling… “No,” I said harshly, my forehead crinkling into a frown that must have been really scary, judging by the way mom and dad took a step backwards, “Leave me alone.”

/>

“No!” I roared, storming away and slamming my door with an impact that must have shook the house. I quickly locked my door and slid to the floor, my head in my hands. Yeah, maybe I was being a child, throwing a tantrum and stomping away but honestly, who gives a shit? Why the fuck should I care what it looks like?

I could hear them knocking on the door, imploring me to let them in, but I just clamped my hands to my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. Darkness. Silence. Everything else shut out and I was alone. I needed to be.

I could feel the door hammering against my back. I leaned forward until my head touched the ground, my hands still clamped over my ears, pressing my head so hard into the wood it hurt. Everything hurt. My hands on my ears hurt. My eyelids screamed in agony as I squeezed them together. Everything was in pain.

/>

I don’t know how long I stayed like that. All I was aware of was the constant pain, the drawn-out stretch of agony that I was holding as long as I could. At least I could deal with that. Physical pain? No problem. I had worse when I fought Brad. Besides…I was truly alone here. No one to bother me, to tell me I needed to listen, to talk, to do whatever they wanted because it would help them feel better.

My breath echoed in my head, the only sound besides my beating heart into the void of pain that I had drawn myself into. I didn’t have to think about anything, didn’t have to remember anything, didn’t have to feel anything aside from the pain that was keeping me here. I needed to stay here. I didn’t want to deal with my parents, with my siblings, with anyone. I’d had enough of it in the past day and look where it fucking got me. Curled up in a ball on the floor of my room like a…

Fuck! Knock it off! Stop thinking about it! Otherwise, I was going to think about…

I was back at the bench, watching the gun travel up to Coach Walburn’s head, that last unreadable look he gave me, the side of his head exploding, the life leaving his eyes…

A chill ran down my spine. I had watched someone die. All that spark and life that came with being alive had flicked out of his eyes in a moment. I had watched it happen.

Slowly, painfully, I dropped my hands from my ears and rolled over onto my side. My heartbeat was no longer a sound but a physical force pounding throughout my body. My brain felt swollen against my skull so each heartbeat made it swell harder against the bone but the world was coming back. Slowly. The pounding of my heart was the only pounding now; my parents had evidently given up.

I gingerly picked myself up off the floor and climbed into my bed, curling up on top of the blanket. I didn’t have the energy or will to draw it back and slide under. I just lay on top of it, facing the wall, feeling as remote from everything around me as if I had been in a parallel dimension. I could see, feel, smell everything, but that’s not where I was. I was in my head.

But I wasn’t exactly thinking. I That’s the only way I can describe it. I was experiencing the confusing, liquid consistency of wet rubber as my mind failed to seize onto anything to think about. I felt the foamy quality of cotton whenever I tried to ground myself and think about where I was. People’s faces may as well have been ink blots. I couldn’t recall any of them, no matter how hard I tried.

Well…I could remember one. And every time I saw his face, I saw what the gunshot did next.

How does a bullet do that? I always thought it made a hole on the other side. Clean I guess not. And all that blood…were some of his brains in there too? Did I miss that?

My hand slid up my blanket to the side of my head. I ran it through my thick hair down to the scalp, reassuringly solid and whole. If I did that…shot I feel it? Or would it be lights-out right away? What was it like the second he pulled the trigger? What was…

My stomach gave a huge heave and I doubled up, my hands clutching my belly. Don’t throw throw up. Bile swam sourly in my mouth but I managed to bed down my nausea. Bed down. I was on a bed. Ha ha.

Time slipped by slowly as I lay on my bed, wishing I could just block out the memory. I knew it wasn’t just the memory; I’d liked Coach Walburn and losing him was going to cause scars that I’d carry for the rest of my life. But…maybe I could have those scars but not remember it? Just have those few minutes blocked from my memory? For God’s sake, I was happy before it happened and now I couldn’t imagine being happy ever…

No. No, I wasn’t happy. Because Kayla still wasn’t talking to me. How had she reacted to all this? Tara had been distraught but Kayla…I instinctively reached for my phone but it wasn’t in my pocket. Where was it?

Oh, that’s right. Tara had it. Great.

My mind went blank after that. Usually I could tell how much time was passing by the shadows on the wall but it was an overcast day so shadows were minimal. Even if they weren’t, I wasn’t exactly trying to notice. I just stared at the wall, my mind too busy to focus on anything, too lazy to relax.

After a long while, someone knocked on the front door. It had been the first actual sound I had heard in a while. Footsteps on the stairs…the door pounding on the a great hammering on my door that I knew could only be one person.

Joe’s voice bellowed from the other side. The knob twisted and rattled against the lock. The hammering started up again. “Seriously, man, open the door!”

I stared at the door for a few seconds before sliding off the bed. Did I want company? Not especially. But it’s not like I could just leave him out there, hammering on my door until he put his fist through it. Goodbye privacy after that.

I undid the lock and took a step back, knowing what would come next. Joe tumbled through the door, almost tripping over himself as he slammed his arms around me (starting to notice a pattern yet?) He pressed me against his thick chest, breathing like a winded rhinoceros. “Shit, dude,” he gasped, “I’m so sorry. You okay?”

“Not really,” I replied.

He stiffened. wrong?”

“I can’t />

“Oh.” He let go, stepping back and looking mortified. “Sorry, Jack. Just…I don’t know />

Belle was standing in the doorway, looking subdued. She put a hand on his shoulder. “I want to talk to Jack alone,” she said softly.

“Hang on, babe,” Joe replied, patting her hand before grabbing my by the forearms, “They didn’t do anything, did they?”

/>

“The cops, man. Like…well, Amanda said you were down at the police station />

I blinked, then understood. “You mean, did they think I had something to do with it?”

/>

Joe…I love you, no matter how dumb you are. “If they did, I wouldn’t be home.”

He bit his lip, his eyes flicking back and forth as he tried to think of something else to say. Evidently he couldn’t think of anything, since he just hugged me again and said, “Fucking message me if you need to, man. I’ll camp outside if you need.”

I hugged him back. We rarely did this except for bro-hugs and it shook me. It shook me so much that I actually felt like I might cry and I had to pull myself free before the tears started falling. Not that I was ashamed to cry, of course. There’d just been too much of it lately.

Joe meekly shuffled out. Belle kissed him on the cheek as he passed before coming in. “I’d give you a hug,” she said with a small smile, “But you’ve probably had enough of those.”

I shrugged. “I can handle one more,” I replied, opening my arms.

She hugged me gently, not pressing me hard like she’d just rescued me from drowning. A welcome change, I have to admit. She let go slowly and sat down on the bed. “Joe went nuts when Amanda texted him,” Belle said, “He’s never been so />

“You didn’t see him during seventh grade,” I replied, sitting down next to her. She cocked her head. “We had this, uh, essay due for English class. I took it from his backpack to mess with him. He tore that thing to shreds looking for it.”

“Over an essay?”

“His grades weren’t the best and he spent three weeks on it.” I smirked a little. “He had everybody backing away, he was so nuts.”

She smiled a little as well. “I’ll have to ask him about it.”

“No, ask him what he did when I told him I had it.”

“What did he do?”

why I said you have to ask him.”

We sat in silence for a while. Belle didn’t want to talk to me alone just to ask me how I was doing so she obviously had something else on her mind. I waited patiently, looking a point beyond her shoulder so I wasn’t staring directly at her. She twiddled her thumbs, her teeth clamped around her lower lip and her eyes hooded. She looked like she wanted to say what was on her mind but was waiting for the right moment.

I’m not exactly she what that ‘right moment’ would be in a situation like this but I was willing to wait. I was curious what she wanted to say only in private.

Eventually, she took a deep breath and said, “I know how you feel.”

expecting that.

“My dad…killed />

I’d been used to silence in the last couple of hours but this particular silence seemed to press down on me. “What? But I seen your />

my stepdad,” she replied, tucking her hair behind her ear, “My real dad hung himself when I was six.”

I wasn’t sure what she was going for but hearing this was only making me feel worse. was all I managed to get out. The memories were coming back and I was feeling pukish.

She quickly took one of my hands. “Jack, listen, I know what it’s like and I want to help you.”

/>

She shifted on the bed so she was fully facing me. “I saw it happen. I was just wandering around the house and…well, he used the second-story railing to…” She drew a shuddering breath. “I haven’t told that to anyone. I mean, my mom knows I saw him afterwards but she doesn’t know that I saw it happen.”

“Why are The wave of nausea came back and my head swam.

She put a cool hand on my forehead and that took away some of the sickness, “I had a really shitty childhood. I don’t remember anything about my real dad and until Andrew came along, my mom didn’t care about anything. She just kinda drifted to work and home without really knowing what was going on. I had to start making myself dinner. A six-year-old making herself dinner.”

/>

“Yeah, well…I can still make the best damn PB&J you’ve ever seen.”

I smiled inside. My mouth wasn’t cooperating. “I’m sorry, Belle.”

“No, Jack, listen. Don’t be sorry about what happened. Why do you think my mom was like that?”

“Her />

“Well, Belle took her hand away from my forehead and looked away. “But I kept apologizing to her about everything, too. Like, if I left my toys out or if I didn’t say hi to her quick enough when she came home from work and just…every time I said she got sad. I didn’t understand why but, once she met Andrew, I kinda got it. It’s like…she thought I was apologizing for it happening like it was my fault. And she knew it wasn’t my fault so it just made her sad because she had to think about it and feel bad that I might think it was my fault.”

“I don’t think what happened to Coach Walburn was my fault,” I replied.

She looked at me levelly. “Okay, Jack,” she said calmly. She didn’t believe me, I could tell. “And don’t try to block it out.”

“What? Why?”

“Okay, Jack, don’t think about an elephant. What are you thinking about?”

I wanted to lie, but… “An />

“Right. So…if I tell you to not think about what happened, you’re just going to think about it. And it’s worse if you tell />

I leaned back on my bed. “Yeah, but…so I have to think about it? Every time I do that, I wanna puke.”

“You can puke or go crazy. Your choice.”

“What did you do?”

She stood up and went to the window. I saw her rubbing her eyes but didn’t say anything. “I drove myself crazy until mom met Andrew.” She turned around and pulled back her sleeves until almost all of her arms were revealed. “Look here,” she said, pointing to a spot near the crook of her elbow.

I leaned in and looked. Her skin was pale but I could still make out what looked like an old scar. “What is it?”

“You know what it is, Jack. And I’ve got two more on this arm.” She pointed them out to me.

“You were six!”

“With some very nasty she replied, sliding her sleeves back along her arm, “I don’t know where they got the idea but a lot of them told me I should just cut myself so I’d stop being sad.”

/>

“Fucked-up world, isn’t it? I didn’t know what I was doing so I just kind of…” She mimed cutting. “I used a steak knife. My uncle was visiting when I did it. I’d never seen him so mad. He promised he wouldn’t tell my mom but he told me if I did it />

I didn’t ask. want to move on from it, />

“It’s not going to be quick,” she said, turning back to me with watery eyes, “Look at me. Just thinking about my dad really tears me the fuck up and it’s been…ten years. It’s going to be a while sorry, I really wish I could tell you it was quick, but it’s not. It’s going to hurt a lot. Like, a lot. She pressed a hand to her lips and closed her eyes. “I just don’t want you to go through what I did.”

“I’m ten years older than you were. Maybe I />

She shook her head. “I’ve talked with people,” she said shakily, “Other people who’ve seen it happen. Doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s still going to rip you up.”

“Well, thanks,” I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose, “At least I know what to look forward to.”

“Well, which would you prefer, Jack? Everyone saying everything is okay and you finding out that it’s not? Or me telling you the shitty truth so you at least have some idea?”

She had a point. I twisted my mouth and said, there anything I can do to make it not so bad?”

“I don’t know, Jack. It was really bad for me but you’ve got someone to talk to about it.”

/>

“Well, yeah, but I was talking about Kayla.” She jerked her thumb out the window towards Kayla’s house.

I opened my mouth, realize it was probably not a good idea to bring up yesterday, and instead said, “Why her? Why not anyone else? My parents or />

“Talk to anyone you want, Jack, but she’s probably your best bet. If something’s bugging me, I talk to Joe about it.”

“Does he actually help?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

She smiled. “In his own way, yes. Talk to her.” I made a noncommittal noise in my throat. “I’ll take it,” she said with a small laugh, “I’d stay longer but Joe’s parents are having a Christmas Eve />

“I wasn’t invited?” I asked, trying to sound offended.

“Oh, I’m sure they’d have you, but then you’d have to tell someone She pointed at Kayla’s house again, “—why you stood her up on Christmas Eve.”

Again, I had to stop myself from revealing too much. “Fair enough.” I stood and gave her another hug. “Hey, Belle?”

/>

“You said you never told anyone any of that stuff before. So why did you tell me?”

She pulled back from the hug and looked at me. “Because you’re the only person I could tell that to without you acting like I’m ready to break down at any second. You’re probably sick of all the pity by now, huh?”

I shrugged. “I because they care.”

“They do. But they don’t really understand what it’s like. You do. So I thought you should know you’re not alone in how you feel. And you’re not alone, period.”

“I know.”

She smiled. “Good. I’ll get Joe so he can try to break your back one last time before we leave.”

Despite what she said, Joe managed to suppress his urge to squeeze. When he released me from what was as close to a brotherly hug as we were going to get, he said, “Listen, man, anything you need, anything, you let me know. Okay?”

/>

“I’m serious, Jack. Anything. I’m here for you.”

I smiled at him. “Thanks, Joe. Merry />

“Same to you. Make sure it’s actually merry, okay?”

“I will. Merry Christmas, Belle.”

She smiled at me. “Merry Christmas, Jack. And I’m here for you, too.” I knew how she meant it and nodded.

Once they left, I sat down on my bed, thinking about what Belle and I had talked about. your dad hang yourself when you’re only six…No, that’s not the important part. The important part was what she said about not forcing myself to ignore what happened. It made a certain amount of sense, I guess. But, what, was I supposed to just saying to myself, “Okay, that happened, now let’s put it on endless-replay forever?” Hell no.

So, what? What was I supposed to do? I mean, if I’m not forcing myself to ignore it, am I supposed to be forcing myself to think about it? What sense does that make? None. In fact, it’s pretty fucking disturbing. But if I ignore it, it’s always going to be there, popping in at the worst times, so maybe I just have to bite the bullet and think about it so that…

My brain was starting to hurt again. I put my forehead in my head and sighed. Being a teenager was stressful enough without this cherry on top.

There was a knock on the frame of my door and I looked up to see Amanda leaning against it. “Feeling any better?” she asked, giving me a wan smile.

“A little,” I replied, “Thanks for texting them.”

“No problem,” she replied, sitting next to me on my bed, “I texted Craig and Becca but they didn’t respond yet.”

“Yeah, I think they’re at…like, some Christmas retreat or something with Craig’s family.” That probably means Carson is with them. It would be easy to blame him for all this but, come on, he had no way of knowing what was going to happen.

Amanda squeezed my shoulder. “Oh, speaking of She pulled out my phone and handed it to me. “Tara took it from you?”

I replied. The phone was dead. Awesome. “Where is she?”

“Tara? She went back over to />

I glanced at the window. “Did you see Kayla this />

“I did.”

“How was she?”

“I only saw her for a second when I came to get Tara. She I mean, it’s not like she was wearing a sign that said, ‘I’m pissed’ or ‘I really miss She saw my expression and hugged me. “I’m sure she’ll be over soon.”

“She was so mad />

“Mad or hurt?”

a />

“If I found out Alan kissed another girl, up to and including our cousin, I’d be hurt but I wouldn’t shut him out forever. You did tell her it was an accident, right?”

/>

She smiled. had a day to cool off and cheer up. Come on, where’s the eternal />

I stared at the floor. “Hard to keep up that attitude after you’ve />

Amanda pulled my head in and kissed me on the forehead. “I’m here for you, Jack. We all are. Just let us know, okay?”

I twisted my mouth but nodded. “Thanks, Amanda.”

She left and once again I was alone in the hollow prison of my mind.

/>
I tried to sleep, reasoning that time would pass quicker and that a good snooze might calm me down, but I just couldn’t get myself relaxed. No matter how much I tossed and turned, shuffled the pillow up and down and side to side, I couldn’t find that perfect spot where I could just relax and let my mind drift away.

I mean, yeah, my mind was going a mile-a-minute so every time I tried to tell myself to just let everything go, thoughts and memories swirled in a loud maelstrom of confusion that kept me awake with a headache that was just on the boundary of being too much. It was more persistent than penetrating, which made it doubly annoying.

Finally, I sat up in bed and rubbed my eyes, too tired and exhausted to sleep. I looked at my closed door, wondering if I should try to go out and mingle…Not yet. Not ready. Handling one person at a time was difficult enough. I glanced at my PS3 but I couldn’t get up the interest to pick up the controller. Me not wanting to play video scary.

I looked at the clock. 5:47. The sun had already fallen and the last streaks of orange were tingeing the sky, promising a calm night. A calm Christmas Eve before the big day. Holy Christmas. And for the first time that I can remember, I’m not hopping with excitement about it.

I leaned my head against the window, letting the cool glass soothe my forehead as I looked down at our yard. The snow was piled up to nearly waist-height, just perfect for making snowballs and snowmen and basically anything else that starts with I remember doing that all the time as a kid, when my biggest worries were cuts and scrapes I’d get from playing outside and hoping that mom wasn’t making seafood for dinner (not a fan). Simple times. Over way too quickly.

I know people always get nostalgic for how things used to be, but if I ever get to the point in my life when I’m looking back on my teen years with something is seriously fucked up.

A knock on the door. Probably Alan or Amanda coming to tell me dinner’s ready. Ugh…I don’t know if I can handle food right now. “Come in,” I said, keeping my forehead against the chilled glass.

The door opened and I heard someone come in. They didn’t say anything. I took my head off the glass, leaving a foggy imprint behind, and turned.

Kayla.

I was surprised, shocked even, but it didn’t spark me with any of my normal reactions. My eyes didn’t go wide, my breath didn’t catch in my throat, my knees didn’t shake…All I felt was relief and an overwhelming wave of sadness. I remembered how she looked when I had walked off her porch yesterday. I’d always remember that look.

She wasn’t wearing it now. In fact, of all the expressions I’d seen today, hers was the most calm, the most collected. And it was costing her a huge effort to maintain. I knew her well enough by now to know when she was trying to hold back. Her left hand was shaking, her brow was slightly crinkled, and her jaw was shifting slightly. I wasn’t sure what emotion she was holding back but she wouldn’t be able to keep it in much longer.

We stared at each other for a few moments in silence before I said, “Hey, Kayla.”

Her mouth twitched into a smile. “Hey, Jack.”

Another moment of silence, then her mask fell away. Worry and relief. That’s what she had been holding back. We were in each others’ arms in an instant, clutching each other like it was our last time.

“Kayla, I’m so sorry!”

“No, I’m sorry, Jack! I know it was an accident but I was just so />

“I know, baby. I understand, trust me. You had every right />

She shook her head. “No, I should have listened to you more. I should have talked it out with you. I was you with someone else just hurt so much and if we had talked it out, maybe you wouldn’t She bit her lip but I knew what she meant.

“It’s not your fault at all, sweetie. You didn’t know.”

She buried her face in my chest. “I’m still upset it happened but Tara told me about what happened and how the first thing you wanted to do was tell me.”

I looked down at her. “Well, yeah. I love you. Why wouldn’t I tell you?”

She looked up at me. “Seriously, Jack, write a book or something. How Not to Be A Stupid Guy, by Jack />

I snorted. “Yeah, well, I think I’ve got just as much as other guys.”

sorry it happened. I know you are, too. It still hurts but I know you didn’t do it on />

“You said you knew when I first told you. Did you?”

She dropped her hands to my shoulders and sighed. did. And I know what you’re going to ask: why did I still get mad, right?” I nodded. She shook her head. “I just…it still happened. And all I could think about was that it still happened. I said that, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, I was surprised. I thought you were just going to slam the door in my face.”

She shrugged slightly. “I wanted to give you something. I wanted to shout, throw things, and I probably would have if I hadn’t been so shocked. Don’t you dare apologize,” she said quickly, seeing me open my mouth, “Damn it, there’s no good way of doing />

“Doing what?”

all this.” She let go of me and clasped her hands behind her head. “I love you, Jack. And even when I was mad at you, I still loved you. I wasn’t trying to put you in communication quarantine, I hope you know that.”

I wanted to say no, but…

She saw it and looked down. “I know I should have messaged you. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to you…I wanted to, believe me. />

“Why did you do it, then?”

“I don’t know!” she said desperately, “I thought that if I heard from you—and I always love hearing from you—that those thoughts of us not being together or you with someone else would come back. Just looking at She put a hand to my cheek. “All I was seeing was you kissing another girl and it just…tore me up. I’m sorry. I know this sounds really bitchy and selfish but it’s how I felt and the last thing I wanted was to say something that might />

I held her again and we gently rocked back and forth. I closed my eyes and just let myself take in the fact that she was back. Kayla was back. We were together. Yes, this was a bump. A significant bump. But we were together again. We looked at each other and slowly brought our lips together. All the pain of what I had seen that morning was still there, the bruise in my heart from Kayla’s final look at me yesterday morning was still painful, but at that moment I was given a reprieve.

Our lips molded together as they always had, our love and trust helping to lift away the pain that had been weighing me down. My heart was beating hard, but for once it was a warm, comforting beat, not the drum of pain that bruised my chest. I felt her breath lightly brush my cheek, the familiar fresh scent of her body filling my nose, caressing away the stress in my brain.

She was back…Kayla was back. The love of my life…was back.

We slowly came apart. The moment lingered, allowing the painful memories to fall back on me more gently than they would have. I gazed into her eyes, still watery from what could have happened to us but so full of love that I felt dizzy. I stumbled back a couple of steps.

/>

I felt Kayla’s hands on my shoulders, steadying me. I blinked hard to clear the fuzz from my vision. What the hell…

Holy shit…I just realized how tired I was.

Kayla saw it too. “Jack, did you get any sleep last night?” She felt my forehead.

great />

She sat me down on my bed and lifted my legs up so I lay lengthwise. she said, pressing against my side. I frowned but shifted closer to the wall. She slid off her shoes, dropped them beside the bed, and crawled up next to me. “I’m big spoon,” she said, lifting my arm so I turned toward the wall.

“Says who?” I said, ruining the effect of the statement by doing exactly what she wanted.

“Says the woman who loves you,” she said gently, leaning up to kiss me on the cheek. She curled her body against mine and wrapped her arm around my stomach. “I didn’t sleep good either.”

I took a deep breath in and slowly let it out, feeling secure and safe for the first time since that morning. “Did you see me with your dad?” I asked.

“Shoveling? Yeah. Thank you.”

“I didn’t see you.” I turned my head slightly. “And I thought you said seeing me might make you think bad />

She sighed. I still wanted to see you, Jack. Besides, I mostly saw you from behind.”

“Checking me out?” I asked, grinding my rear into her crotch.

She swatted my arm. she said with a voice that told me she was smiling, “And yes. Do />

I held her hand. “I’m sorry, Kayla. It wasn’t your fault />

“It’s not going to be a fault thing,” she interrupted, “If I say it was my fault and you say it was your fault, then we’re going to have an argument and right now, I just want to be close to you. To help you feel better.”

“Who told you about this morning? Tara?”

she came back over. Amanda told Tara what happened when she came over but I didn’t hear. Tara…Jack, if any girl would be as distraught if something happened to you as me, it’s her. She looked like the world was ending. They left before I could find out but…well, I had a pretty good idea.”

“I’m sorry you worried so much.”

“I think I blew up everyone’s phone trying to figure out what />

I frowned. “Amanda and Tara stayed home. I’m surprised they didn’t />

“You didn’t see how Tara was.”

“I kind of did when I got home.”

“This was scary, Jack. I hope I never have to see anyone look the way she did again.” She shivered.

“I probably looked something like that after Coach Walburn shot />

She was silent for a while, holding me tight. Eventually, she said, “I should have been there with you.”

“No. You shouldn’t have seen that.”

“Well, neither should you, Jack. And if you’re going to have to go through something like that, I want to be there with you.”

I shook my head. “No, sweetie. If I had to see it, I’d rather it be just me.”

“Jack, stop doing this. Please. I don’t like you talking like that.”

I squeezed her hand. “Okay. I’m sorry.”

She nuzzled her face against my neck. “Can you promise me something, Jack?”

“Not sure. What is it?”

“Can the rest of high school be as normal and boring as TV shows make it look?”

I snorted. “I’ll try, sweetie, but I don’t know.”

“Well, as long as you’re trying.”

We stopped talking after that. Laying there in the bed with her, feeling her warmth against me, knowing she was back in my life…Holy crap, I was actually starting to feel sleepy. I fought to keep my eyelids open but they were drooping down under their own weight and I could feel myself drifting in and out of wakefulness even when they were open. I squeezed her hand again and she gave me a squeeze back.

God, I missed this.

And just before I fell asleep, I realized something else. The entire time she had been in the room, I had felt the scars of seeing Coach Walburn die but not once had it invaded my mind, like it had when I had talked to everyone else. I could still feel them but knowing that Kayla was here, that she would always be here to help me without asking for anything in return (she didn’t ask about it at all…bless her), made it all better.

I still felt like shit, to be honest, but the world was looking just a little brighter.

/>
/>

Something slammed into my bed and I flew up, arms thrashing wildly. “What the fuck!” I yelled, looking around wildly.

/>

It was two voices. Alan and Amanda were both crouching at the foot of my bed, bouncing in excitement. Both were dressed in their Christmas sweaters. I blinked the sleep from my eyes and looked at the clock. “What time is it?”

Alan demanded, “It’s present time! Come on!” He leapt off the bed and scampered out of the room.

Amanda slid off more gracefully. “Come on!” she said, tugging at my hand.

I looked around, knowing something was missing. Kayla?” I asked.

“She left last night.”

night?” Holy shit, had I slept for more than half a day?

Amanda seemed to read my thoughts. “You were wiped out, Snorlax. Don’t worry, she’s coming over with her parents in a few />

That’s right, we were going to spend Christmas together. How did I…Oh, that’s right. I was supposed to invite the Hannigans when I went over I said, smiling and climbing out of bed.

“Yes, it is,” Amanda chirruped, rocking on her heels in impatience, “Now get on your sweater and get downstairs. Presents!” She scampered off like Alan.

It was only when I had pulled out my sweater did I realize that I was still dressed in my running outfit from yesterday morning. I took a sniff and immediately recoiled. Kayla, bless you for putting up with that smell. I stripped and quickly buried them at the bottom of my hamper. It masked the smell a bit but did nothing for my body odor. I’d have to take a shower soon but I had the feeling if I tried to get one now, the twins were going to gut me.

I had just pulled on my sweater when Tara came in, dressed in her own sweater. she said with a small smile.

I replied, going over to her and giving her a big hug.

She clutched me tightly. “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you more />

“Well, you were all busy helping fix everything with Kayla.”

She stopped herself.

/>

she replied, smiling at me, “I didn’t really have to fix that much. I told her my side of what happened and…there you go.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “So what else did you talk about?”

“Nothing important. I assume talking with her went pretty well?” She winked at me.

She was avoiding my question and I decided not to pursue it. At least, not right now. “It did. I mean, I wish we could have hashed it all out when I first told her, I shrugged.

not upset.”

“I’m upset it happened but I’m not going to hold it against Kayla. She got upset. It makes sense. She needed some space. Yeah, it sucked and I hated being unable to communicate with her but…I did fuck up.”

Tara twisted her mouth. “I want to say I’m sorry again. Is that one time too many?”

“I know you are so you don’t need to say it.”

She looked at me. “Jack, why are you so nice?”

“Oh, is it a />

“Hell no it isn’t, genius. But I’ve had this same thing happen before and the guy always gets pissed off.”

/>

She rolled her eyes. “I get angry at a guy and need some space and he gets all pissed off because he wants me to forgive him right away. How do you not do that?”

/>

“Uh huh. Well get a move on, Magic Jack. I wanna see what you got me for />

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

She stuck her tongue out at me and turned to go. She stopped and turned back with a more sober look. know you’re probably sick of people asking but…are you doing okay?”

I thought about it. I’d seen someone die. The image kept flashing in my head. How did I feel about it? “Just kinda numb,” I replied.

“Okay. Let me know if you need cheering up. I’ll do a dance.”

I smirked. “Lovely. I’ll see you />

“Hurry up!” She flounced out.

As soon as she was out of sight, I leaned against my dresser. The image of Coach Walburn shooting himself hadn’t gone away. It was like someone was pressing the button every few seconds. I was feeling a whole slew of things: nausea, shock, pain. But it was hard to pin down exactly what they were attached to. I mean…okay, take pain. I liked Coach Walburn a lot and the fact that he’s gone hurts. Hell, even if it was a complete stranger, it would still hurt seeing them be beaten down so bad that they had to shoot themselves. And nausea, let’s not even get started on…

Let’s not get started at all. It’s Christmas. I have to put that on the backburner.

I remembered what Belle said yesterday about not trying to ignore it. Well, I wasn’t. Not really. I acknowledged it but I just wasn’t going to think about it right now. That’s not denying it, right?

Mom and dad were setting out light snacks in the living room, where the twins were already separating the presents into piles. Well, two piles anyway. The first thing I did was give mom and dad a big hug (lots of those going around. The world needs more hugs). “I’m sorry,” I said as my head was squished between theirs, “I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

Mom rubbed my back. “If you want to talk, you let us know, okay />

“I will.”

Dad clasped the back of my neck and brought our heads together. go being too tough,” he said gently.

“I’ll try, dad.”

Alan and Amanda sat beaming amidst their piles of presents, their fingers twitching in little wrapping paper-ripping motions. “Since you two are so good at mom said, arranging the Christmas cookies on their plate, “You can separate everyone else’s gifts too.”

“But />

“I am not Butt-Mom,” she replied imperiously, “There won’t be any opening of gifts until the Hannigans get here.” They made whining noises. “Maybe organizing all the gifts will make time go by quicker, hmm? Either that or you can kick all yours back under the tree and we’ll do it properly later.”

With many a huff and sigh, they got up and started parceling out everyone else’s gifts with far less care and grace than they had their own. “Need help with anything, mom?” I asked.

“I’m fine, sweetie,” she said, giving me a smile full of motherly concern, “You relax.”

“I had enough time for that yesterday,” I replied, “I wanna help.” Nothing worse than having to wait to open gifts on Christmas. Especially with bad thoughts hanging onto the back of your mind.

“All you grab the bowl of punch?”

I looked at the already-crowded coffee table. “Where am I gonna put it?”

“I’ll make room. I used grandma’s bowl so watch />

Grandma’s bowl. Something I’d been familiar with since I was little. It was one of those ornate glass things as big around as my head with details so intricate, it looked like it was molded rather than hand-made. But hand-made it was; grandpa had taken her to a glass-making shop in Italy when they were younger and had it specially made for her while they watched. It’s been through Nazi-like care and diligence that it’s lasted this long.

Why do we have it instead of grandma and grandpa? It was a wedding gift to my parents. My mom tried to turn it down but when my grandparents make up their mind…well, they’re old-fashioned. And by that I mean it’s do what they want or get your ass handed to you.

By the time I reentered the living room, moving a zombie speed with the big, heavy bowl quivering in my hands, mom had indeed somehow managed to squish everything together so there was enough space for the bowl. This meant, of course, that the cookies were threatening the territory of the chips and dip and so forth, but I doubted we’d be eating too much of this, especially since mom already had a duck cooking in the oven for Christmas Why the quotation marks? Because the meal was at lunchtime. What about the meal around actual dinnertime? Well, that was up to us kids since the grownups were having a Christmas dinner party with some of their friends from work…I think. If it’s from work, I couldn’t tell you whose work it is.

“Thanks, Jack,” mom said, giving me a smile.

The doorbell rang and everyone gave a little cheer, all for different reasons. “I got it,” I said. No one protested. Mom was frantically checking the arrangement of the hours d’oeuvres, Alan and Amanda had dived back to their pile of gifts, Tara was on the phone, probably with her parents, and dad…okay, dad was just standing off to the side.

Good old dad.

I opened the door. “Merry Christmas!” the bundled up Hannigans shouted, presents in their hands and grins on their faces.

“Merry Christmas,” I responded with a smile, standing aside to let them in.

Kayla was the first through, giving me a peck with her chilled lips. “Hey, handsome,” she said happily, “Sorry for slipping out last night.”

“It’s okay,” I replied, “Were you planning to call me?”

/>

“Oh, it’s just…like when a guy sneaks out from…Bad joke. Can I bail?”

She laughed. “It’s fine.”

“Flirt later, Kayla,” Mr. Hannigan said, still standing in the doorway, “Let frozen butts in.”

“Sorry, dad!”

She shuffled forward to let Mr. Hannigan’s big bulk in. Even in his massive arms, the stack of presents swayed precariously. “Need a hand?” I asked.

“Good man,” he responded, tipping a good number of them into my arms. I staggered as they swayed back and forth, trying to maintain balance. “Too many?” he asked.

/>

“Ahhh, there’s never too many. Give yourself a good />

He tromped past me to greet the rest of my family, his thick boots echoing on the wood floor. Mrs. Hannigan gave me a kiss on the cheek and whispered, glad you’re okay, Jack.”

I blinked in surprise and looked at Kayla, who was busy giving hugs to the twins. Had she asked them to not mention what happened? I smiled. What a gal.

Once all the presents had been passed out and everyone had sufficiently greeted each other, dad clapped his hands. “All right, everyone!” he said loudly, “Anyone want some punch?”

“If we say yes, are you going to hit us?” Mr. Hannigan asked.

“Well, I was going to hit you anyway. It’s just funnier if you say />

Everyone laughed. I chuckled, having heard dad use that one a few times before. I was sitting between Tara and Kayla, who had spent a good deal of time whispering when they first greeted each other. The heck were they up to?

Dad passed around cups of punch, blithely ignoring Alan and Amanda nearly hopping with impatience as they gazed hungrily at their gifts. He held up his glass. “A very Merry Christmas,” he said, “I don’t know any good cheers besides the ones from Christmas movies, so I’ll just say…thank God for us all and our />

everyone intoned and drank their punch.

Dad set his cup down. “Now let’s drop the mushiness and open some damn gifts.”

Everyone cheered in agreement and soon the air was filled with flying wrapping paper and boxes. When I was younger, we used to open gifts from youngest to oldest but soon had to give that up when the twins and I would argue about who was technically the oldest. I won the debate, since I had come out first, which left Alan and Amanda to fight over who got to open their present first. What’s that you say? They could have each opened a gift at the same time? Tell that to />

So now we just all open gifts and save the thanks for afterwards.

My presents included a slew of videogames (courtesy of the twins and my grandparents), a small tool kit from Mr. Hannigan, a $50 Best Buy gift card from Mrs. Hannigan, a pair of business suits from my parents (“If you’re going to work in the professional world, you need to look the part,” dad said), and a wallet from Tara that was made from, I shit you not, stingray skin.

“Holy crap,” I said, running my hands along the bumpy surface, “Where did you find one of these?”

she said happily as she examined the running shoes I had gotten for her, “How did you know my size?”

“Oh, that was Kayla,” I said, glancing at my beaming girlfriend.

“So that’s why you wanted to know my shoe size!” Tara laughed.

“Why else would she want to know?” I asked.

“It’s shoes, Jack. It was easy to fold it into a normal conversation about shoes.”

“Normal conversation about shoes. Right.”

Tara stuck her tongue out at me, then brightened suddenly. “Oh!” She stood up. “Hold up, />

Everyone looked at her, half-opened gifts in their hands. “Yes, Tara?” mom said, frowning in confusion.

“My parents also have a gift for you. Well, more of a surprise than a gift. Or the gift is a She took a deep breath and said grandly, going to be moving out here!”

Kayla whooped and clapped her hands. My family looked too stunned to move. “Out here?” dad asked, “As in…next door?”

Tara laughed. “No, Uncle Mike. Just to the area.”

So that was the big thing she hinted at a couple days ago. I grinned at her and stood up to sweep her into a huge hug. She giggled and squeezed me back. “So are you going to be going to our school with us?” Amanda asked, standing close behind me for her turn at a hug.

Tara let go of me and hugged Amanda. “No, sorry. We wanted to get something around here but no luck. We’ll be a few towns over.”

Amanda pouted.

“Since when was this going to happen?” mom asked, folding her arms with a wry look.

“For a little while now. We started looking a couple of months ago. And we found the />

“Tara, honey,” mom cut through, giving her a smile with just a bit too much sugar, “Would you mind getting my sister on the phone, please?”

wrong, Aunt Hannah?”

“Oh, nothing.” Just looking at her smile was giving me diabetes.

dad said, putting his hand on her leg.

Mr. Hannigan said loudly after a long, uncomfortable pause, “Glad we’ll be seeing more of you, Tara.”

she said, flipping her hair dramatically, “I’ve grown fond of you all.”

I poked her in the stomach. “So why out here?” I asked, “Just can’t be away from us?”

She stuck out her tongue. “Well, that’s a fringe benefit, obviously. My parents just like the area, I guess.”

“You guess?”

She smiled. “I stopped listening after the part where they told me I’d be closer to you guys. I was sold after that.”

Wow…that sweet. I felt a lump build up in my throat and swallowed hard to keep my face calm. “Thanks, Tara,” I said huskily, the lump obstructing my vocal chords.

she said, hugging me again, “I love you.”

“Love you too,” I replied.

Kayla hugged me from behind and soon we had everybody piled in for a gigantic group hug, with me at the center getting squashed on all sides. It was only when I actually had to start gasping for air that everyone relaxed a little bit and let it be a hug, not a dog pile.

After a minute of loving contact, we slowly split apart, almost too sheepish to speak. mom said, fumbling for words, “I’m gonna go take a look at that duck. See if it’s ready.”

“How did you cook it?” Mrs. Hannigan asked.

“Orange and basil sauce.”

“Orange and what now?”

“Basil. It’s actually not too hard. They went into the kitchen together, mom gesturing grandly as she explained her latest culinary epiphany. Is orange and basil already a thing? Maybe, but I’d never had it.

dad said, looking around at the ground, “Clean-up time. You kids stay put while we get the garbage bags. Sneak off and you get to shovel on your own for a week.” He was looking hard at Alan, who already had all of his gifts in his arms and had the look of someone planning a quick getaway.

Alan muttered, dropping his stuff on the sofa and looking with despair at the field of wrapping paper in front of us.

“And you didn’t forget anything at our place,” Mr. Hannigan said to Kayla.

“I didn’t say I did!”

“Good. Then you don’t have an excuse to leave either.”

She pulled a face at him. “Thanks, dad. Merry freaking />

“Speaking of Christmas,” Amanda said once our dads had left the room, your gift for Jack, Kayla?”

She smiled. “Oh, he’ll get it later.” She saw Alan wiggling his eyebrows and jabbed him in the arm. “It’s a real present, you perv.”

I looked back at where her pile of gifts had been and saw my gift to her was still untouched. “So we’ll open each other’s gifts later?” I asked, nodding to it.

she replied, “Thank you so much, but I want us to have our own gift exchange. Just you and me.”

“I bet,” Alan said with a grin.

“I will punch lower,” Kayla said, glaring at him. He squished his thighs together and turned away.

“After our parents leave?” I asked.

Her eyes flickered over to Tara for a second before smiling and replying, “Sounds good.”

“When else would you do it?” Alan asked, rolling his eyes, “Unless you want the ‘rents to ask what the thumping noises are.”

“Okay, you don’t get to hang around Joe anymore,” Amanda said, “He’s rubbing off on you.”

“Better than rubbing on him,” Tara said sassily.

We were still snorting with laughter when our dads came back with a fistful of trash bags and the colorful mess on the floor was cleared away. Kayla helped me gather up my gifts and carry them up to my bedroom. “You think Alan’s picking up Joe’s vibe?” I asked.

“I don’t know but there’s not enough Ritalin in the world for more than one Joe,” she replied with a giggle. We deposited the gifts onto my bed. Kayla picked up one of the games and said, “With all this, I’m gonna need to turn you to the light and water you />

“Har har. I still need to finish Bioshock Infinite with you.”

“Yes, you do.” She dropped the game on my bed and turned to me, taking my hands. “How are you doing, baby?”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

She looked at me under her eyebrows. She sighed and let go of my hands. “I’m not trying to get you to talk about it or anything. I know you’ll talk when you want to. But I want to know that you’re doing okay.”

“I am,” I replied, doing my best to sound genuine. Actually, the backburner thing wasn’t working out too well. If the only thing I had to think about was what happened with me and Kayla, that would have been fine. Still fresh, but fine. Like a paper-cut. But Walburn wasn’t going away so fast. It was like everything I looked at made me think that, at one time, he had had all of that. A home. A family. A wife. And all that hard work he did, everything he accomplished, his whole life…over in a matter of seconds. Cut off right in the middle.

I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Not the why…but just that it happened. And this was someone I knew, not a name in a news story. He would never be in my life again. Just a memory.

And I had seen him die.

Kayla saw all of this and leaned up to give me a kiss. “I’m here,” she said, />

“I know.”

I wondered if Walburn and his wife ever said the same thing to each other.

/>
Dinner was fairly uneventful. Okay, that’s a little unfair. Let me try that was delicious, but uneventful. Seriously, I don’t know if I’ve drilled it in enough yet (phrasing) but I’m still fully convinced that mom’s got some sort of special ingredient she puts in everything that makes it ten times more delicious (and I fucking double dog-dare you to say that it’s crack. Do it).

When I say I mean it was fairly routine in terms of everything else. Conversation was fairly general, not much in the way of banter, everyone saying extravagant ‘thank yous’ for gifts, that kinda thing. Nice and simple. Just what the doctor ordered.

I did my best to be as cheerful as possible but if anyone sensed any dourness from me, they didn’t comment on it. I didn’t say much through the meal, content to chew, laugh, and respond with as many words as was needed and no more. Kayla kept a worried eye on me the whole time and my reassuring smiles did nothing to dissuade her.

Dinner was consumed, plates were cleared, fights were had over who was going to do the dishes until it was agreed, rather unfairly, that since the kids were staying home with nothing better to do, they should do it.

“You owe us!” Alan said hotly as the parents gave each other high-fives for their ‘epic win’.

“Oh, yeah, those gifts we got you? You’re welcome,” dad snarked back.

“Yeah, that whole gift of life thing? You’re welcome,” mom added, doing a little cha-cha dance.

Well, damn. The Gift of Life card. If your parents never pulled this on you, count yourself lucky. You can’t fight against it. Just knuckle under and do what they want. Unless you want to hear some disturbingly detailed accounts about the night you were conceived. Did you just shudder? Good.

As the parents were getting all dolled up for their evening out, I came across Kayla getting her shoes and coat. “Where are you going?” I asked.

“Back home,” she replied with a smile, “I need to get your gift.”

“So why can’t I come?”

“A surprise,” she said, winking, “I’ll text you when you can come over, okay?”

I replied, still confused.

make sense soon,” she replied, kissing me swiftly before dashing out the door.

she going?” Tara had come in from the living room, where she’d been trying on the shoes I had gotten for her.

“Home. For our gift exchange. To…set up, I guess.”

“What does she need to set up?”

“Read my thoughts, coz.”

She grinned. lost that, yet. Good.”

“How are the shoes?”

She was wearing them and she flexed her feet. she replied, “I’ll take them out running tomorrow. You can join me if…” She stopped, a look of horror crossing her face. “I’m sorry.”

I gave her a small smile. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

She floundered for a topic of conversation. the wallet?”

“I love it,” I replied, pulling it out, “I already shifted everything over.”

your old wallet?”

“Ass-deep in a garbage bag.” She giggled. “I’m so happy you guys are moving out here.”

“I know,” she squealed, “Oh, you have no idea how hard it was keeping it from you guys this long. But, She did a cheerleader leap in the air.

“Wish you could go to our school.”

She stuck out her lower lip. “I know. I wish we could. We looked for houses around here, trust me. First thing. />

“So where’s the house?”

“The one we think is ‘the one’ is over in Maidensburg. And we won’t really be moving in till summer so…” She pouted again.

“Well, we still have a few more days,” I said, patting her shoulder.

/>

My parents came tromping down the steps, dressed to the nines in their finest dress outfits. “All right,” dad said, pulling out his and mom’s heaviest coats, “Heading out. Don’t go too nuts while we’re gone.”

“You know us,” I replied, “Party />

“Seriously, I like this house. If />

“Blah, blah, don’t burn down the blah,” mom said, snapping her fingers, “Chop chop, honey.”

“Yes, dear,” he said meekly, helping her on with her coat.

“Have a good time,” Tara said, giving them a hug.

“Will do,” dad said, “Watch after the twins, will ya? They’ve got a Tasmanian Devil thing going.”

“Really? Amanda?”

“Okay, just worry about the male one, then.”

“Always do,” Tara laughed.

Mom kissed me on the forehead. “See you tomorrow morning,” she said.

morning?” I asked.

“Grown ups partying on Christmas? Of course we’re going to crash over there.”

“Where exactly is this place?”

“Twenty minutes away,” dad said, looking at his watch, “Which means we need to be hitting the road now.”

“Be careful out there,” I called as they opened the front door.

“Of course. Love you!” dad said, giving us a final wave.

“Love you too!”

Tara put her hands on her hips and heaved a deep sigh. she drawled in a long, low note, “What do you wanna do with a parentless house?”

“Well, I got a big stack of new games to play through,” I replied nonchalantly.

“How exciting,” she said “I’m gonna go soak in the bath for a while.”

“Why? You smell fine.”

She narrowed her eyes and smirked. “Sniffing me, huh?”

I rolled my eyes. “For seriously, you’re fine.”

“I know,” she said, pretending to be defensive, “But I haven’t had a chance to soak in a tub in a long, long time and I could do with a nice, long, relaxing, hot bath.”

I ticked off the adjectives on my fingers.

She stuck out her tongue and stalked up the stairs. “Have fun with your video games,” she said tartly.

I was about to follow her when I spotted my gift to Kayla sitting on the coffee table. I smiled, picturing her reaction to it. It had taken me a while to think of but I’m sure she’ll love it. I just hope she’ll understand why I chose it. And I wondered what she got for />

Tara had already gotten the water running when I got upstairs, the steam already curling under the door. I passed by Alan and Amanda’s room to see them making out on top of Alan’s bed, wrapped so tightly around each other that it looked, for a moment, as if they were actually fighting.

“Live I commented.

Alan took his mouth off of Amanda to say, “Oh, bite me.” Then he yelped as Amanda latched onto his earlobe with her teeth.

“Have fun,” I said, waving to them as I continued on to my room.

Alone. God, it’s kind of sad how much I’d come to be afraid of it. I mean, yeah, I was afraid of being alone if Kayla broke up with me, but that was an endpoint. It came, then it was over. Being alone now meant I had to think, to remember what had happened. I know I wasn’t supposed to fight it off but it was such a painful memory that the old nauseous feeling returned every time I even thought about Walburn while he was alive, in gym class.

Jeez…That day he made Craig and me was the day he found out his son died. After if I’d been able to hold off Craig, maybe we could have pretended it wasn’t as serious as it was. Then he wouldn’t have lost his job…

See what I mean? It all comes back to what happened. Now I’m on the verge of blaming myself and I’m shit-in-my-pants terrified that I’ll actually end up believing it.

I popped in the latest Dragon Age game into my PS3, prayed it would be better than the last one, and started playing. Nothing like hacking up Darkspawn to relax the mind.

I was just about finished with the first part of the first level (basically, I had just started, though I already knew I would love the game), when my phone buzzed in my pocket. I paused the game and pulled it out.

Kayla: I’m ready 🙂

The system was off and I was halfway down the hallway a heartbeat later, tugging on my shoes. Alan and Amanda’s tryst had progressed from making out to the oral stage. Alan had his head down between Amanda’s smooth thigh, his head bobbing slightly as he teased and tongued her pussy. Amanda was lost in ecstasy but she saw me through her half-closed lids and gave me a thumbs-up before going back to enjoying what Alan was doing to her.

Living dangerously.

The bathroom door was still closed but I could hear the dripping of water in the tub. I knocked on the bathroom. “Headed to I called through it, “See you later.”

I didn’t wait for her to respond as I thumped down the stairs, seized Kayla’s gift and my coat, and bolted out the door.

Despite my coat being thick and well-insulated, the chill managed to creep through a dozen overlooked gaps and sliced across my skin like a blade. I bundled myself up tighter and trudged through the snow. It was powdery and loose and managed to squirm into my shoes, soaking my socks and making the whole journey a rather uncomfortable experience.

Why didn’t I take the road? Well, the shiny surface told me that it would be less of a walk to Kayla’s house than a skate, and I’d rather have soaked socks than a bruised ass.

I knocked on her door, her gift clutched tightly to my body as if it would warm me. I mean, it was a cuddly gift, but the wrapping paper ruined the effect. A moment later, Kayla opened the door, a huge smile on her face. “Come in! Get warm!”

I gratefully stepped past her, tugging off my shoes and socks to let my pruned toes breathe. “Do you have a towel?” I asked.

she replied, disappearing into the kitchen for a second before coming back with a dishtowel.

I wiped off my feet, getting them as warm and dry as they were going to be for a while, before I looked at what Kayla was wearing. She had changed into a thin, red blouse that ended about mid-thigh and a pair of thin green pants that clung tantalizingly to her curves. She’d donned a candy cane-colored hair bow, complete with two miniature bells that dinged softly every time she moved her head.

“Like it?” she asked, doing a little twirl, “Too />

“No,” I replied, leaning in to give her a soft kiss.

She grinned into the kiss and held my face to hers for a moment before breaking off with a happy sigh. “I love you,” she said dreamily, then seized my hand, “Come on! Gifts!”

She led me up to her room, where she had set up a miniature Christmas tree on her bedside table, complete with tiny electric lights. I commented, tweaking the top of it.

“Put my present underneath it,” she said, indicating a spot on the ground next to another wrapped gift. I raised an eyebrow but did as she asked. She took my hands in hers and looked into my eyes. “Merry Christmas, Jack.”

“Merry Christmas, Kayla,” I responded with a smile.

“First of many to come.”

/>

She picked up the smaller, rectangular package and held it out to me. “This is for you,” she said quietly, “Hang on.” She went over to the light switch and flipped it off, leaving the room in the warm, cheery light of the small plastic tree. “All right, go ahead.”

I slowly tore off the wrapping paper to reveal a book set, bound together by a length of ribbon. Three books, under the trilogy name of His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. I’d heard of them but never had the chance to read them. I said, undoing the ribbon.

my favorite books,” she said, watching me examine the backs of the books, “They made me want to write.”

“I didn’t know you were a writer.”

yet, but I want to be. kind of challenge books.”

“How so?”

“Like, the ideas and stuff. A lot of stuff about religion. I think it pissed a lot of Christians off.”

I smiled. “If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.”

She laughed. “I hope you enjoy them.”

“I’ll start reading them right away,” I said, putting them on the floor and giving her a kiss. “Now it’s your turn.” I picked up her long, somewhat ungainly gift and held it out to her. “Sorry about the wrapping job. I kinda suck at wrapping gifts.”

She giggled. “To be honest, I had my mom help wrap yours. I’m not good at wrapping either.” She shook the gift theatrically. “What is it?”

“Opening it helps, />

She stuck her tongue out at me and tore off my hack-job of a wrapping job to reveal a large, stuffed white seal. She squealed in delight and immediately hugged it to herself, dancing from toe to toe in joy. “So cute!” she squealed, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

“Glad you like it,” I said, amused.

“I love it!” she squeaked, “I love you more, but thank you! Awwww, it’s just like the seals we saw at the />

“Except white.”

“Except white, yes.” She gave it a big kiss on its black nose, then tossed it on her bed to throw her arms around me. the best ever,” she sighed as we slowly rocked back and forth in the soft glow of the tiny lights.

We stayed silent for quite a while, content to just be in each other’s arms. I rested my cheek in her hair, the fabric of the hair bow tickling my nose slightly. I wasn’t alone, not anymore. I was with Kayla, the warmth of her embrace reassuring me that I was as safe and secure as I had ever been. Her hands lightly massaged my back, gliding over knots and convincing them to relax. I could feel her smiling against my chest as we rocked back and forth, our embrace strong but not tight.

This wasn’t puppy love. This was actual love. It was a certainty that I knew in the depths of my heart.

Slowly, she pulled her head back and looked deep into my eyes. “I love you,” she said seriously, “And I’m sorry for the other day.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “It shouldn’t have />

it shouldn’t have.”

“Are you mad at me?”

She shook her head. “I know it was an accident. I should have talked it out with you.”

“And I shouldn’t have kissed Tara,” I replied, “So we both have a ‘we shouldn’t have’ going on.”

She was silent for a bit. “Did you enjoy it?” she asked.

/>

“Did you enjoy it? Was she a good kisser?”

don’t remember. I thought I was kissing you so it’s not exactly fair to />

She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you remember />

“I remember being horrified when I saw who it was.”

/>

it wasn’t you.”

She poked me on the nose. “I think you enjoyed it.”

/>

“I’m teasing, Jack,” she said, kissing me on the cheek, />

“It’s okay.”

We lay down on her bed, wrapped in each other’s arms. She was silent for so long that I thought she might have fallen asleep when she suddenly spoke: “What are you />

“Thinking? How good this feels.”

She squeezed my arm. “Anything else?”

“Do you want to ask if I’m thinking about />

/>

I sighed. “Impossible not to.”

She let go of me and sat up on the bed, her hand on my stomach. “I know you don’t need someone else telling you that they’re worried about you right now, but…I am. That’s why I want to know what you’re />

it happened. He just…died. Just like that.” I snapped my fingers. dead. A second between them.”

She stared down at me. “If I had listened when you came over, you wouldn’t have gone running,” she said quietly.

I sat up as well.

“When Tara came back…she told me that you had been running because she suggested it. To help calm you down. Calm you down />

I saw where she was going and quickly cut her off: I hate what happened between us. But I’m not blaming you. You shouldn’t blame yourself. If you start blaming yourself for that, then I’m going to blame myself for Walburn, and />

“Why would you blame yourself?!” she demanded, “You didn’t do />

“Neither did you.”

She put her face in her hands. “I want to move on from this but…I don’t think that’s fair to you. I can move on from you kissing Tara, trust me, got way more than I do.”

I leaned back against her pillows and stared at the wall. I didn’t know what I should be feeling right now. I had never known anyone who had committed suicide, or had even known anyone who committed suicide. I was completely on my own with this one.

Kayla’s hand found mine. No. I wasn’t on my own.

I pulled her in. She looked up at me with surprise at first but quickly relaxed and let her face fall against mine as our lips met. Her body leaned against mine, one hand running through my hair as our lips pressed more firmly against each other. My hand rested on her hip and rubbed close to where it curved into her rear.

She smiled into the kiss and wagged her rear a little bit. I laughed slightly, opening my mouth to allow our tongues to meet. It had only been a few days since we had been together like this but, with everything that had happened, it may as well have been a month.

Her hand slid out of my hair, down my neck, and lightly trailed along my shoulder, squeezing the giant knot. I groaned as the pain lanced through my shoulder, causing me to tense, until her hand relaxed and sweet relief replaced the pain. “Do you want a massage?” she asked, breaking the kiss.

I shook my head and brought her face back for a kiss. I needed this. This closeness. This love. Not to forget, but to reassure me that there was some light left in the world. A lot of it had gone out for me.

Her hands slipped under my shirt, trailing on my abs. I pulled her closer, wanting more, needing more. Our tongues were dueling frantically now as our breath quickened and our hands clutched with more passion. I could tell she wanted it just as much as I did.

But she still pulled back. you sure?” she asked hesitantly, “We can stop. I don’t want you to feel like you have to.”

“I want to. I really do.”

“Me too, baby,” she said, curling my hair around my ear, “But after it okay?”

I couldn’t talk anymore. I all but tackled her, pressing my lips desperately to hers as I lay on top of her. She gasped into the kiss but wrapped her arms tightly around me, mashing my face to hers as our lips smacked together in what was rapidly growing from love to lust. Not that the love wasn’t still there. Lust-love. Is that a thing?

Stop being distracted.

I eased some of the force out of the kiss, my lips leaving hers and softly traveling down her chin to her neck, lightly sucking on it. She moaned and ran her hands back through my hair, her legs squirming together as I continued to pleasure her neck. My hands caressed the curve of her breasts through her shirt. She thrust her chest forward into my fingers, her nails lightly digging into my scalp as her breath quickened.

I felt slight bumps in the thickness of her bra and looked up at her. “What is that?” I asked, flicking one of the bumps.

She giggled. “Oh, that.” She slipped out of bed and quickly whipped her blouse off.

My jaw dropped. She was wearing a lacy, blood-red bra with various green bows around the edge of the bust. “I think you must have been feeling these,” she said innocently, rubbing the bows at the top of the bra with her middle fingers while the index fingers lightly ran along the swells of her breasts.

an unbelievable tease, you know that?”

“Oh, you want teasing?” she asked. She hooked her thumbs into the waistband of her pants and shimmied them down, revealing a G-string that barely covered the heart above her mound. She turned, glancing over her shoulder as she mooned me, the G-string all but disappearing between her cheeks. “Does it flatter?” she asked in an affected Southern belle accent.

I looked up at her. “You were totally planning this weren’t you?”

She bit her lip coyly. />

“Then why did you ask if I wanted to?”

She put a hand on my cheek. “Just because I wanted it doesn’t mean I would have demanded it. I would have stopped if you had wanted to.” She glanced down at herself. “Would have been a waste, though, don’t you think?”

I seized her around the waist and drew her in. “Terrible waste,” I agreed before sticking my tongue in her belly button.

She squealed and pushed me back on the bed. She climbed on top of me. “Slow or hard?” she asked.

/>

She started tugging at my shirt. “Slow or hard?” she repeated, “How do you want it?”

I let her take off my shirt, shivering a little as the cold air hit me fully. “I think that’s up to you,” I responded, running my hand up to her breast and lightly squeezing.

She moaned appreciatively and replied, Ease into it.”

My other hand curled around her back, trying to find her bra clasp. “Can do,” I replied.

Because she was sitting on me, my arm could only reach so far. As a result, my fingers just sort of flailed and ineffectively drummed against her back, just out of reach of her bra clasp. She reached around, moved my arm out of the way, and deftly undid the clasp, letting the straps sag a little as the tops of the cups slid down, stopping just above her nipples.

“You can do the rest,” she said teasingly, squeezing her breasts together with her upper arms.

I lowered the straps down her arms and slowly revealed her hard, pink nipples. I tossed her bra aside and leaned up, my tongue preceding my lips to her nipple and giving it a light lick before I latched onto it with my mouth. She held my head to her breast, moaning and pressing her chest against my face. My hands wrapped around her and slid down to her butt, squeezing it and molding it between my fingers.

I switched to the other breasts and lightly swatted her rear. she moaned in appreciation, />

I complied, swatting it a little bit harder and feeling the vibrations in the other cheek. She was panting now, her hot breath warming my scalp as she leaned in to kiss me on the top of my head. I licked and suckled and lightly tugged on the nipple with my teeth, letting it snap back with a rewarding squeal-moan each time.

She was grinding her hips against mine, the thin fabric of her G-string allowing the bulge of my cock to tease her through my jeans. Her fingers were claws in my hair as she held me against her breast. “Oh, she moaned, “You do that so />

I took my mouth off her breast and stretched my head up to kiss her, my hands cupping her breasts and lifting them as I squeezed. She accepted the kiss eagerly, matching my strength and desire with a passion that egged us both on.

Lithely, she slid off my lap and glanced critically at my jeans. I smirked. I said, undoing my belt and sliding down my jeans, leaving me in just my tightly-fitting boxers.

She trailed her finger down the length of my member. not trying to break the mood or anything, She glanced up at me and bit her lip.

/>

sure?”

/>

She smiled. />

The G-string slid off her waist. Frankly, it seemed like more effort than was needed; the thing would have probably snapped if you gave it the slightest tug. My eyesight swam for a second as the heart-shaped hair above her pussy was revealed, pointing down to the heavenly slit between her legs. I could smell the musk of her excitement, causing my cock to twitch in its confinement.

Kayla noticed. She leaned in and kissed my chest, pecking her way down my abs to my pelvis, where she took the waistband of my boxers lightly in her teeth and slowly tugged them down. My cock knocked into her head as it popped out.

I said, pushing my cock against my stomach. It was throbbing and pulsing with excitement, fueled by the excitement that was driving my desire for her. Carnal love, I guess you’d call it.

She shook her head and she managed to maneuver my boxers, with my help, down my legs and eventually off altogether. She spat them out (in a very ladylike way) and brought her hands up to my cheeks. “How do you want to do it?” she asked quietly

Honestly, I didn’t care. I just wanted her in every way I could. I stood up and wrapped my arms around her, pulling her to me as I kissed her hungrily. She kissed back, her hands trapped between our bodies. She pushed against me slightly to free them and I took a step back, falling back onto her bed. She smiled wickedly and crawled cat-like on top of me, straddling me on all fours with her breasts hanging just out of reach of my mouth.

“You didn’t answer me,” she breathed, the little hair that wasn’t held by the hair-bow falling down along her face.

My desire was burning hotter than ever, a need to have the love and joy that being with Kayla brought. It didn’t have to be sex obviously, but…She was naked and excited. I wasn’t turning that down.

I leaned up to kiss her again, leveraging my body up so that I was sitting up with her in my lap. My arm encircled her and I twisted to the side. She gasped lightly and wrapped her arms around my neck to steady herself as I turned her around and lay her on the bed with me on top of her. She smiled up at me.

“Go for it,” she whispered, opening her legs.

I leaned in to kiss her again, guiding my cock to her soaking entrance and letting the hardness of my cockhead tease the soft folds of her pussy. She moaned and moved her hips so that the tip of my cock slid all around her pussy lips, sending shuddering waves of pleasure through my groin. I took hold of my length and gently pushed the tip of my cock into her, her lips parting tightly as I entered her.

She sucked in her breath and her arms squeezed me to her as my cock pressed slowly into her. She was so tight, it was almost painful. Her excitement made the entrance a little easier but I still took it slow, sawing my cock steadily deeper and deeper into her with tiny thrusts of my hips. She was pressing her thighs tight against my hips, drawing shuddering breaths every few seconds as I continued my journey into her.

I was almost fully buried inside her when I took my mouth off of hers and kissed her jaw line. I brought her arms down from around my back and held her hands against the blankets as I continued to kiss her jaw and neck, breathing in her scent. She sighed in pleasure, nuzzling the top of my head with her chin.

My lips touched her collarbone as I suddenly pulled my hips back and quickly slid into her all the way, burying me in her. She squeaked and looked at me with wide eyes. “Are you okay?” I asked, lifting my head from her chest.

she said, breathing quickly, “Just didn’t expect it.”

I went back to kissing the tops of her breasts as my hips rocked back and forth, sliding my cock in and out of her. She tried to lift her hands but I held them down against the bed. She moaned in teased frustration, rocking her shoulders as she attempted to break free of my grasp.

she gasped as I rocked my hips hard against her.

I asked, lifting my head with reluctance; I’d just been about to take her nipple in my mouth again.

“Please let go of />

I asked, quickening my pace a little.

“Because you />

I considered holding on, just to see if it increased her orgasm, but she seemed to sense this and squeezed my hands with all her might, causing my fingers to bend backwards. I quickly let go and her arms snaked around my neck, pulling me in for a hard kiss as she used the leverage to thrust herself back against me.

Her hard nipples slid along my chest as her breasts heaved with every thrust. I had always loved watching her boobs move with the motion of our fucking but now I could feel it as well. The soft mounds of flesh tipped with the nubs of nipples teased and caressed my skin, forcing fresh blood to my cock and increasing its rigidness.

My mouth being locked on her gave me time to feel other things as well, things I probably just took for granted. Like the way her tongue lithely traced mine and curled around it during our slow love-making; fast fucking was accompanied by aggressive lashing. Her legs were wrapped around my waist but I had never noticed until now that she hooked her feet into each other right above my rear. Occasionally, when my thrusts slowed and became fuller and deeper, she would stroke my rear with her toes. How had I not noticed that before?

My mind was wandering, I know, but it had done little else in the past couple of days. I switched it off and returned to Kayla.

Our lips slid off each other and she squeezed her eyes shut and moaned. Jack…fuck />

“Feel good?” Trite, I know.

“Oh, fuck yes,” she gasped, giggling breathlessly, “Keep going…oh, don’t stop! Don’t />

/>

She gripped my head. you dare.”

“I don’t />

“Jack, I’m not going to beg.”

I kissed her. “I wouldn’t make you.” I reached above her to curl my fingers around the edge of her mattress and pulled, bringing my entire body up and deep into her.

She gasped loudly and her mouth fell open in a gigantic grin, her eyes rolling back in her head. She squeezed her thighs against me, her pussy tightening around my cock. Every time I slid back, it took more force to penetrate again but that only increased the pleasure. I don’t know if she could control it but I felt the muscles inside her squeeze me at random, always unexpected and always exciting because of that.

“How do you…do that?” I moaned as her pussy clamped on my sensitive cockhead yet again.

she gasped back, running her hands up and down my sides.

“You squeezing my…cock with your…you know…oh, />

she asked with a giggle, “Oh, I’m />

I grabbed her by the waist and lifted her rear off the bed, spanking her with my left hand and getting a surprised giggle out of it. I grunted, holding her waist up in the air as I sawed faster and faster into her.

She couldn’t respond. I had found her spot and her hands were desperately trying to clutch at anything they could grab. Her head was still on the bed so her chest was at an angle, her breasts bouncing back and forth so fast that the nipples were a blur. If I hadn’t needed both hands to keep her waist up, I would have cupped them and rolled them around, teasing the nipples with my thumbs…

Should I set her down? The angle was perfect and she was going crazy, but I really wanted to feel those boobs…

Kayla raised her arms above her head and pressed hard against the mattress, lifting her whole body off of the bed in a spider-like pose. I stopped thrusting for a second in shock. “Keep going!” she barked.

I resumed my thrusting and she gamely held that position, rocking her hips up and down against my cock as her moans turned throaty. Her head lolled back, her hair tickling the covers of the bed, her breasts no longer moving as much since they were stretched against her chest. All I could see of her face was her chin; all the rest of her beautiful features were facing the wall upside-down.

I don’t know if it was because I couldn’t see her face anymore or the way that the angle of her body pushed my cock upwards inside of her, but I was suddenly seized with a mad fervor. I slammed myself into her as hard as I could, grunting, with each thrust. My chest was becoming tighter and my breath was catching my throat, but I didn’t slow down. I couldn’t slow down. I was on autopilot, rocketing my hips and cock into her so hard, I think it may have been hurting her. I know it was hurting me. I felt like the skin was being rubbed off of my cock.

But I couldn’t stop. All I could focus on was how good it felt (I know I said it hurt but…it still felt good). I could feel my head shaking back and forth, almost mad with the passion of our fucking. I was going crazy. Where the hell was this coming from?

What was coming over me?

Why wasn’t Kayla looking up at me so I could see her? It was like her head was gone…

The gunshot sounded in my head…

My hips stopped and Kayla fell back on the bed, her chin on her collarbone as she gasped for breath in gasps so big, they were soundless. Her fingers trailed aimlessly along the sheets of the bed, plucking at loose threads as if trying to cling onto something. I pulled out of her, the cold air striking her juices on my cock and making me groan.

She looked up slowly. “You okay?” she asked dreamily.

I replied as I sat down on the bed, knowing I didn’t sound like I meant it.

She laboriously lifted herself up off the blankets and pulled herself over to me. She nuzzled against my shoulder and said, still thinking about it.” It was a statement, not a question.

/>

She kissed my shoulder. “What can I do?” she asked.

“I don’t know what anyone can ‘do’. I maybe just go away.” I wanted to bring up what Belle talked to me about but that wasn’t my secret to share.

She grimaced as she slid her legs over the side of the bed and leaned against me. She looked back at the bedspread. “Well, this’ll need to be washed,” she sighed, smiling up at me. I didn’t smile back. She put a hand to my cheek.

“I just don’t know how to make it go away,” I said, rubbing the heel of my palm against my eyebrow.

try />

“I know I know I shouldn’t try to make it go away but it’s like…did you ever have braces?” She shook her head. “First week after I got them on was like…oh, you can’t even imagine it. My teeth were being yanked around and my mouth hurt all the time and I couldn’t even eat anything. I had to, like, gum it. And I had to go to school like this and they didn’t have a soup option. Everyone kept telling me that the first few days are the worst and that it’ll get better and…yeah, it did, but…shit, it doesn’t make those first few days better. And with I couldn’t continue.

“I know. It would be nice to just skip to everything being okay again.”

/>

She leaned up to kiss my cheek. “I don’t know what to do about that.”

“Neither do I. And it sucks.”

“Yeah, it She chewed her lip. what happened between />

I looked at her quickly. “I thought everything was okay.”

“Well, it is between us, but…Tara is something else.”

/>

She looked up at me with a strange expression, then got out of the bed on shaky legs and pulled open the door to her closet. I could only stare, too shocked to say anything. Standing amidst the hanging clothes, with an expression of shy mortification, was Tara.

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. And that was only realizing that she was actually here when I thought she was back home in the bath. It took a few seconds for the fact that she had just seen me and Kayla have sex to hit me and, when it did, it felt like a mini heart-attack.

“Come out,” Kayla said calmly.

Tara meekly stepped out of the closet, one of her index fingers held in the other hand. She was wearing one of Kayla’s robes which, because of her height, made it clear that she was not wearing anything underneath. She looked at me and blushed so red, it looked like blood was seeping out of her skin.

The sounds were made in my throat. My mouth wasn’t really involved.

“Tell him, Tara,” Kayla said, not seeming to be shy about the fact that she was naked next to my cousin.

Tara bit her lip and looked at Kayla with a pleading look, but Kayla just shook her head. Tara turned back to me and took a deep breath before speaking, in a voice slightly higher and shakier than I was used to from her: really liked that kiss and I know you didn’t know it was me but…I knew you were kissing me. I really, really liked it.” I didn’t speak. I couldn’t. She took another deep breath. “And the really selfish part of me has been wanting it to happen again. Which doubly sucks because I wanted you to be with Kayla and…well, it sucks. I know, I know, after yesterday, these really aren’t that big of an issue, She trailed off.

Kayla put a hand on her shoulder, as much for support as anything (her legs still looked a little wobbly), and turned to me. “One of the things I asked Tara yesterday was why she let you kiss her and she said it was because it had been so long since she had been kissed by someone she knew cared about her.” I remembered her saying something similar to me. “I asked her if she wanted to do it again and…well, she did. And does.”

“Kayla, I’m your />

“I know, sweetie. And Tara knows, too. But I also know that Tara’s been through a big list of douchebags who only want to fuck and then fuck off. Tara, how long did you say it’s been since you actually had a connection with the guy?”

This was for my benefit. I could tell by the way Kayla asked. “Too long,” she replied quietly, “Maybe the guy who took my />

“How long ago was that?”

years ago.”

Two years ago…She lost her virginity in middle school?!

“And I know what it’s like to be with a guy like that. You know I do. And it would be…unfair for Tara to leave thinking that the only things she has to remember this trip by are She gave the word a venomous edge, “—and getting a kiss from you that wasn’t really for you.”

“And almost breaking you up,” Tara put in, somewhat eagerly. The hell was this?

“We would have been fine,” Kayla said reassuringly, before turning back to me with a blush creeping into her cheeks, and I talked about it she and deserves to be with a guy who cares about her…I offered to let her join us.”

My stomach vanished. I don’t know where it went. A magician somewhere took it. I didn’t even know how to respond except to gape and wait for them to continue.

“Only if you want,” Tara said quickly, seeing my face, “I really want it okay with it. I think.” She looked at Kayla shyly.

Kayla smiled. “I know how good I felt when Jack and I started dating. And the first time we had sex. And, if he wants, we can share that with you.” She looked at me with a smile that was just a smile, not encouraging one way or the other.

love you…just />

“I know you do, Jack. And I love you. And Tara loves you and I know you love her. We’re not forcing or demanding anything. But if this will give her a happy memory of her time here and give her the chance to feel something like what you and I always share and…put to bed any lingering thoughts she might have of doing something with you,” she cast a playful glare at Tara, “then I’m fine with it. As long as you are.”

“If you say no, I’m okay with it,” Tara said quietly, biting her lip, “At least I’ll have that kiss to remember. I know the whole thing about us being cousins is weird but…I don’t care about that. I love you and I want this and if us being cousins weirds you out, I understand. It doesn’t for me.”

“Nor for me,” Kayla said calmly, giving me a knowing look.

How do I react? What do I say? This has just been dumped on me without so much as a by-your-leave. Holy me and Kayla…What the fuck do I even say to that?

My mind immediately drew the battleground. One the one hand, she was my cousin. I’m okay with Alan and Amanda but that doesn’t mean I want to get involved with it. I mean, I’ve always considered her more of a sister than a cousin, which makes it word you use in this situation.

On the other hand, I loved her and I knew, better than Kayla, how bad her luck with guys was. I’m not fluffing myself up but I love her so much and I want her to be able to have the experience that I have with Kayla. If she really wants it from me, then I should try to do my best to make her happy.

Then almost certainly another guy out there for her. A guy not related to her who will love her even more than I do. He’ll probably be even nicer and kinder than I try to be on a daily basis. The last thing I need is her perception of other guys getting warped by me until she isn’t giving any guy a chance because, well…they aren’t me.

But I trust her. I trust her to have more brains and sense than that. And after the whole thing with Carson…she deserves to have some joy with love and, yes, even sex. I could give that to her, whole-heartedly. And Kayla would be with us, too, so it’s not like I’m doing this just to get my rocks off.

Or am I? I’ll admit, seeing Tara in that robe is doing nothing to lower my already-erect dick. Yeah, growing up, I sometimes thought about her when I jerked off, along with about half the other girls I knew. The last thing I needed was to make a decision based on wanting to fuck a hot girl and trying to convince myself that it was for a deeper reason that didn’t really exist.

On the other gorgeous.

But so is Kayla. And she’s my girlfriend!

But they’re both fine with it!

Fuck.

What the hell do I do? It was a stalemate in my mind and I had no one to turn to for help. I stared at the two girls, both looking back at me expectantly, and knew I had to give them an answer. Yes or no…yes or no…

My mind raced furiously, battling over an answer to a question I never thought would be presented to me.

What do I do?

story by: Michael.F



Tags: fiction sex story

Author: Michael.F



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