Mom had pulled me into her arms and she’d smelled of pumpkin and spice, making it even harder to leave. I wanted to be that little girl again, the one who didn’t have to pull up her big girl panties and deal with the shit sandwich that was life.
“The young man has a lot on his plate.” She’d squeezed me the way I loved. “He reminds me of this guy I knew in med school. He’d been involved with this girl for years and she’d died unexpectedly over summer break. I think it was a heart issue.” Mom had pulled back, grasping my cold hands. “But it’s been how long? Decades? I still see him every so often and he’s never married and I don’t think he’s ever been in a long-term relationship. And Jase . . . well, he had a child with this girl. It’s even more difficult for us to really understand.
Hearing that really didn’t make me feel any better. Even if Jase didn’t want me, I still wanted him to move on, to find love again and to have a life that he shared with someone. I didn’t want to think of him like Mom’s friend, spending years alone with nothing more than casual relationships and not letting anyone close.
Jase deserved better than that, because deep down, he was a good guy who was just . . . messed up in a way I couldn’t fathom.
I’d forced myself to go to sleep early the Sunday we returned, but it was like every night recently. I’d only be asleep for a few hours before I’d start to dream. Some nights I dreamed of Debbie in the dorm, of her . . . hanging in the dorm. There were nights where I was back at the funeral again and instead of Erik yelling at me, he’d push me into the open grave.
And other times, I dreamed of Jase. Of him loving me and telling me that he’d always be there for me. Those dreams weren’t bad until I woke up and realized that that’s what they were. Just dreams. Then there were dreams where we were stuck in a strange house and I’d call out his name, but he never seemed to hear as he walked through doors and I could never catch him.
Every morning I’d wake up feeling like I hadn’t slept at all and I went through the semester’s last classes in a fog. Still, I’d breezed through most of my finals. Considering I’d had a crap ton of free time on my hands, I’d done a lot of studying while I was alone in the apartment. And eating. But the studying had me more than prepared, which was great, because this was my future. Maybe not the one I’d planned, but the one I needed to accept. And teaching wouldn’t be bad. I’d enjoy it. So passing my finals was a big deal.
My muscles tensed as Calla and I entered music and took our seats. Her cheeks were ruddy from the cold, making the scar stand out. Rubbing her hands together, she huddled down in her seat.
“I can’t deal with this cold,” she said, shivering. “When I finish college, I am so moving to Florida.”
“A few months ago you were saying you couldn’t deal with the heat.” I pulled out a pen, ready to be done with this class. Like for real. “You should probably find a place that has the same kind of lukewarm temp all year-round.”
Her lips puckered up. “That’s a good idea. Now just finding a place like that. What about you?”
Graduation was so far off I couldn’t even think about it. I shrugged. “Probably stay around here, I guess.”
She sighed as she reached over, tugging on the hem of my hoodie. It was then when I realized I’d worn the same Old Navy hoodie the last three days. Wait. Did I even shower this morning? I didn’t think so. I did brush my hair before I pulled it up in a messy pony.
“Come over to my dorm tonight?” she asked, like she’d been asking for the last two weeks. “We can get a bunch of junk food—make a run to Sheetz. You know my love of their nachos.”
I started to tell her no, but stopped myself. I needed to pull my head out of my ass. At least for a few hours. “Okay, but can you pick me up? It’s too cold to walk over the field at night.”
“Of course!” A wide smile broke out over her face—a breathtaking smile. “Yay! And I’ll get beer, because nothing like supporting underage drinking. Or I can get some of those girlie hard lemonades. Bitch, I’m gonna get you so drunk you don’t . . .” She trailed off, lips thinning.
“You’re gonna take advantage of me?” I joked, and when she didn’t laugh, I sighed. But then I felt eyes on me and I looked over. The air froze in my lungs.
Jase stood at the end of the aisle, dressed in a hoodie and worn jeans. He had that damn gray toboggan on, the one I loved so much. I wanted to rip it off his head and do something crazy, like stash it under my pillow or something.
I cringed inwardly.
Good thing I only had insanity-sauce thoughts and didn’t actually act on them.
Seeing him, just like every time I saw him, was so f**king hard. Even before we got together it had been bad, but it was so much worse now knowing what it was like to be in his arms, to feel his skin against mine, and to know his kisses. Harder yet was trying to reconcile his kindness, good humor, and protectiveness with this Jase—the same one who’d dropped me after our very first kiss.
I got that he had baggage, but I wouldn’t have run from dealing with it. I would’ve helped him once I wrapped my head around it all. I would’ve loved him nonetheless.
The pen slipped out of my fingers and rolled onto my lap. A knot formed in my chest as he shifted his weight. He looked like he wanted to say something, but I couldn’t imagine what it would be since he’d been avoiding me like I was a bad case of herpes.
“Tess,” he said. My entire body tensed at the sound of his deep voice, and I closed my eyes.
Hearing him say my name . . . I forced the tears welling up in my eyes to dry when I reopened them. It hurt, because the boy . . . the boy broke my heart.
Calla stiffened, and I knew she was seconds from going mama bear all over his ass.
And he must’ve sensed it too, because his thundercloud-colored eyes shifted to her and then back to me. Whatever he was about to say was lost to the forever and never going to happen. He gave his head a quick shake and then pivoted on his heel and walked several rows down, taking a seat.
My gaze was fixed on the back of his head, on the way the ends of his hair curled up over the edges of the toboggan.
“Forget him,” Calla said.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t ever just forget him.
“I mean it, Teresa. You deserve a guy that doesn’t bail on you and ignore you for weeks.”
“I know,” I whispered, studying the back of his head, easily recalling what it felt like to let his hair sift through my fingers. “Doesn’t make it any easier.”
Calla didn’t say anything, because what I said was the truth.
Heart heavy and chest aching so badly I wanted to just throw myself down and cry under the chairs, I turned my attention to my music final, determined not to fail because of Jase.
And to not shed another tear because of him.
After my last final, I trekked over to West Woods. Since I wasn’t planning on hanging around in Cam’s apartment during winter break all by myself like a total loser—instead I was going home to mommy and daddy like a total loser—there were still a few things I needed to get out of my dorm since I was planning on staying in Cam’s apartment next semester.
Even though Cam said he had no problem with me staying there, I needed to get a jobbie job and contribute something to the rent. And a job would help keep me distracted. Between not being able to dance, Deb’s death and Erik, and now Jase, I needed something to focus on bad until my brain and heart moved on.
That didn’t seem like it would happen anytime soon.
Cold wind chilled my cheeks, and the scent of snow was in the air as I crossed the lawn leading up to the dorms. My knee ached a little by the time I reached the lobby of Yost. With most kids already on their way home, the main room was pretty quiet with the exception of a few people lounging on the couches.
Digging out the key card from my backpack while I waited for the elevator, I tried to ignore the tightness between my shoulder blades. I hadn’t been back to the dorm since that horrible night. I didn’t want to go in our room, but I needed to get my stuff out and Cam would be over in an hour to load up his truck.
And I needed to act like a grown adult. There was nothing wrong with the dorm, and I seriously doubted the room was haunted. Bad vibes were expected, but I could spend the next however many minutes necessary to grab my remaining stuff.
Emboldened by my pep talk, I stepped into the elevator and rode it up to my floor. As I made it out to the hallway, my phone chirped, signaling that I had received a text. Thinking it was Calla or Cam, I pulled it out of the front pocket on my bag and nearly tripped.
Coming w/ Cam to help. Need to talk to u.
That was all the text from Jase said, but my heart was pounding and my stomach dipping as if the text had said much more than that. Like the text had read: I’m a f**king turd and I made a big mistake and I’ll love you a long time.
Except the text hadn’t said all that, but he was coming to help Cam. And that had to mean he’d gotten my brother’s permission and that also meant he had to have said something that made Cam agree. Which would’ve been hard considering I’d been a hot mess and that was partly his doing.
I stopped in front of my dorm suite, my pulse skyrocketing from the buzz of elation. Don’t read into it, I told myself. Just because he was coming over to help and he wanted to talk didn’t mean anything. And I also shouldn’t be as excited as I was. I reeked of desperation. Should I even tell him he could help? Part of me wanted to tell him no, but then I’d spend the rest of the night punching myself in the face. We did need to talk . . . and I wanted to talk to him.
My hand shook as I sent back a completely calm and unenthused Ok.
His response was almost immediate, tripping up my heart.
See u soon.
Forcing out a breath I wasn’t holding, I slipped my phone back into my bag. With Cam present, this was sure to be make the awkward hall of fame list, but there was no denying the jubilation building despite that pesky thing called common sense
I swiped my keycard and pushed thoughts of the upcoming visit from Jase out of my head as I opened the door to the suite and stepped inside, letting the door slide shut behind me.
My gaze crawled over the suite. Nothing looked different. One pillow was on the couch, the other was on the floor, under the coffee table. A musky smell lingered, a residue of the humid summer. The door to the suitemates’ room—to Steph—was most likely locked. Although she’d helped me out the night of Deb’s death, I hadn’t really seen her around, and I didn’t want to think of her, because when I did, I thought about how she used to hook up with Jase.
And that made me wonder if they were hooking up now.
A knot twisted in my stomach at that thought, and I cursed under my breath. I was literally my own worse enemy.
Dropping my bag on the couch, I swiped my card again and opened the bedroom door. I blinked as I sucked in a sharp breath. My heart kicked into overdrive. At first I thought the lack of sleep and stress was causing me to hallucinate. I didn’t believe what I was seeing. I blinked again, but nothing changed.
Erik sat on Debbie’s bed.
Tingles skipped between my shoulder blades and then raced down my spine. Erik was in here. What was he doing in here? In his lap, he was holding something—a sweater. Understanding burgeoned. It was one of Debbie’s sweaters.
Gone was the stylish coifed hair and clothing. Everything about Erik was messy and wrinkled. Dark bruises sunk his eyes in. Lines appeared around his lips like thin cracks in marble. Scruff covered his cheeks, telling me he hadn’t seen a razor in days.
Our eyes met and locked, sending a series of chills down my back. Something in his gaze punched a hole through my chest.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, voice flat.
I was too dumbfounded to question why he was asking me that. “I . . . I needed to get the rest of my things from my room.”
Erik looked around the dorm room slowly. All Debbie’s stuff had been removed. The bed was made, blankets folded over, but the pillow was flat, as if someone had been lying on it. The closet door was open, revealing what was left of my clothes and my books.
“You couldn’t stay in here?”
The accusation in his voice snapped me out of my stupor. My eyes swung back to his sharply. “No. I couldn’t. Could you?”
A muscle tensed in his jaw and a moment passed. “I couldn’t.” He slowly set her sweater beside him, his hand lingering on the wool before going to his knee. “But I’m here. So are you.”
My mouth and throat were dry as he continued to stare at me. Deep down I never believed that Debbie’s death was a simple suicide that no one would ever understand and I always believed that Erik had something to do with it. Either he’d pushed her to it or he’d done something to her and made it look like she’d killed herself. No one could ever explain the pink scarf and how it got on the door, especially since Erik claimed to not have been there.
In his stare, I could tell he knew exactly what I was thinking.
Breath catching, I took uneasy step back. “Cam and Jase are coming over to help me. They’ll be here any minute.”
“I overheard your brother earlier. He’s got a final right now.” He took a slow, measured step forward. “Why would you say that when it’s not true?”
My heart thudded as my thoughts raced. “I thought he was coming over sooner than that. I got the time—”
He laughed a short, dark sound as he looked away, running a hand through his hair. “You didn’t get shit messed up.”