You’re overreacting.

The thought came automatically, like a song on repeat, and it nearly swept my feet out from under me.

Those words had been thrown at me too much, and I’d taken them up like armor, and I’d used them to close off all the ugly emotions inside of me. I guess I’d had to sacrifice some of the good ones, too. Because now that those were back, all the ugly ones were, too.

The effort of pretending all day today had worn on me like sandpaper, and my skin felt raw. There was a truth that I needed to face. It screamed from the back of my mind, and I didn’t think I could survive listening to it.

I needed something to drown it out.

I didn’t think as I fled that tiny apartment. I pulled on a pair of shorts and some sandals. I told myself that my nightgown top could pass for a blouse, and I descended the rickety stairs slowly, ignoring the impulse in my blood that told me to run. Far and fast.

Riomaggiore wasn’t exactly the picture of nightlife, but I found a bar by looking for lights and listening for people,

It was filled with mostly tourists, and I took an empty seat at the front. I told the bartender to bring me anything, anything at all.

He started telling me about a special lemon liqueur called limoncello that was homemade from the lemons his family grew. I tuned him out and reached for the small glass he held, and tipped it back in one go.

I’d expected it to be sour, but it was bittersweet. It tasted like lemon drops with just a hint of Pledge, but I didn’t care.

“Sip!” The bartender mimed sipping, like maybe I was misunderstanding his broken English. I understood it perfectly.


I held up a finger and said, “Another. Wait, no. Bring me the bottle.”

His brows furrowed, and I said louder, “The whole bottle. All of it.”

I laid a few of my largest bills on the counter, probably twice as much as the bottle was worth, but I didn’t care. I took the neck of the bottle when he handed it over, and I tipped it straight back.

It burned, but not enough.

Alcohol was supposed to sterilize, right? Because I needed that. I needed to burn out the infection and numb my wounds.

A guy came up to talk to me, and I was so at a loss for what to do that I felt the tears collecting like rain at the back of my throat. In the end, I sent him away, even as I thought about following him.

I’d come here with every intention of losing myself the way I used to. I just wanted it to stop hurting, and it hadn’t hurt so badly when I’d spent every night in a bar with a different guy. It had been a different kind of pain then. Hollow, almost. The pain of absence. Like missing someone you haven’t seen in a long time. That, at least, was the kind of ache you could learn to live with.

This current pain was sharp. Unexpected. And I couldn’t control it. Sometimes it happened when Jackson would touch me, but often it didn’t even take that. Just a thought or a feeling or a memory could conjure it. And each time I felt like my lungs had been punctured and I was drowning without any water.

I took another swig from the bottle, and it was too damn sweet for a moment this sour.

The only thing I could think of was that this was the price of trying to be whole again. I’d turned myself off all those years ago, so that I wouldn’t have to feel the things I’d lost. And unbeknownst to me, I was losing more of myself every single day. The universe wouldn’t let me move on without feeling those things.

But maybe I could get stuck again. Maybe I could find my way back to that stagnant life where nothing ever changed, and things were never very bright, but they weren’t too dark either.

I could find my way back there. I could. And it would be better when I did.


No. No, please, no.

I took a bigger gulp, hoping it would transport me out of this moment. I was like a child wishing for Narnia in a coat closet, but I wasn’t so naive to believe I would get what I wished for.

“Kelsey, what are you doing here?”

God, I didn’t know how to answer. I didn’t know whether to be cold and push him away or to fall into his arms. Either option would hurt, and that’s what I was trying to avoid.

So, I stayed silent and took another drink.

“Hey,” he snatched the bottle from my hand. “Look at me. You don’t need that.”

I pressed my cheek against the cracked, worn wood of the bar, and watered it with the steady leak at the corner of my eye. I squeezed my eyes shut and mumbled, “Just leave me alone. Please. Leave me alone.”

“Princess, what’s the matter? What happened?”

“Nothing happened. I’m fine. Can’t a girl get a drink?”

I reached for the limoncello, but he stepped between the bottle and me.

“Not like this. Not in the middle of the night, still wearing what you wore to bed.” His fingers plucked at the lacy strap of my top, and he continued, “Not when you’re clearly upset. I don’t know what happened, but this isn’t the answer. I’ve been there. I thought it was the solution, but it only amplified the problem. Come talk to me.”

“I am the problem! Don’t you get that? This is who I am. This is the only way I can survive.”

“That’s not true. You have so much more than this. Whatever you’re running from, it’s just a thing, a memory. It can’t dictate your life.”

I pushed my hands up into my hair and squeezed, trying not to cry.

“It already did. And now it’s not just one memory . . . it’s a thousand. And I can’t run. This isn’t me running. This is me giving in.”

I raised my hand and called the bartender. He started moving my way, but then Jackson pointed a finger at him and said, “No. Don’t give her anything else.”

Damn it. Now I was going to have to search for another bar because Hunt was sure as hell more intimidating than I could ever hope to be.

“I understand what you’re doing, Jackson. And it’s sweet, and I’m thankful, but it’s not going to work. Let me save us both the time and the trouble.”

We had only known each other a matter of weeks, and already the darkness had crept in. If we couldn’t beat it at the beginning when everything was fresh and the emotions were the most intense, there was no hope for a future here.

He moved in close, gripping my jaw and drawing my eyes up to his. “I told you the night we met that I didn’t care what you think you needed, and now is no exception. I’m not letting you do this.”

He took hold of my elbow and started pulling me out of the bar.

I tugged my arm loose, and stumbled back a few feet.

“You can’t just drag me along or throw me over your shoulder to get what you want, Jackson. Not this time. You’ll only make it worse.”

“Make what worse? Explain to me what’s happening. What’s changed?”

“Nothing.” I pulled at the corner of my lips like puppet strings. “That’s the point. I’ve been acting like I’ve changed. Like I’m the kind of person who can run away for an adventure with you or waste days in your bed. Like I’m the kind of person who can fall in love. I’m not. That part of me disappeared a long time ago.”

I brushed past him and out into the night, wondering if there would even be another bar in a village like this.

“Is this because of what happened when you were younger?”

I froze, stiff as a stone. I could feel the tiny pebbles that had snuck between the bottom of my foot and my sandal. I could hear the scratching noise in my lungs from trying to inhale and hold my breath at the same time. I could sense Hunt at my back by following the waves of my panic like sonar. I turned. “How do you know about that?”

“You said something . . . the night you were drugged. No details, just that . . . you knew what it felt like to be taken advantage of. I didn’t want to push you to talk about it if you weren’t ready, but I’ve been picking up clues, and if that’s why this is happening, you have to know it wasn’t your fault. Whatever was done to you . . . it was outside your control.”

“That’s not why I can’t do this. It’s a part of it, yes. It’s what came afterward, the part that was in my control.”

That’s what was killing me.

“Just tell me what you’re thinking. Talk it through. Maybe that will help.”

That was the last thing I wanted to do. The more I opened up, the more it hurt. That’s how all of this shit started.

I turned and started walking, the slope of the village down toward the water making it impossible to do so slowly.

“I’m not letting you walk away from this,” Jackson said behind me. “I’ve watched you let go and open up. I’ve watched your smile change from forced to brilliant. I won’t watch you back peddle just because it’s hard.”

I turned, furious.

“Screw you. You don’t get to belittle what I’m feeling and tell me I should suck it up. That’s all I’ve ever done is ignore what hurts, and look at where it’s fucking gotten me.”

His hands cradled my jaw, his fingertips pressing just hard enough that it cut through the haze of alcohol.

“I’m not belittling how you feel. I would never do that. I’m just asking you to let me in. Let me feel it with you.”

I tried to pull my face away, but he held strong. “You don’t really want that.”

“Try me.”

Rage bubbled up in me. I couldn’t tell what from or if it was for him or myself. All I knew was that I was overflowing with it. I pushed him away, his fingertips scrabbling at my cheeks.

“You want to hear it? Fine. It’s a simple story really, about a pretty girl who was pretty stupid. She let a man touch her because she was scared to say no, and then she told her parents because she was scared to say nothing. Then they were scared to do anything that might ruin their pretty little lives, so they told the girl that it was nothing. That just being touched wasn’t enough to fight for. Too scared to prove them wrong, she kept going like it was nothing, and she let more people touch her, never knowing that she was handing out pieces of herself. Or, hell, maybe she knew deep down, and she just hated herself so much that she was glad to be rid of them. And life wasn’t pretty, but it also wasn’t scary until she met a man with two names who touched her without taking and made her miss the pieces she had lost. And now things aren’t just scary, they’re fucking terrifying, and I can’t do it. I can’t live like this, knowing all that I’ve ruined and that it can’t be fixed.”

He caught my hands as they pulled through my hair, and pulled my body against his, and I felt all the holes in me. My sobs echoed through them like caverns, and I never would have thought empty could be made of such weight.

I couldn’t breathe around it.


A tightness was forming in my neck, like it was clamped in a slowly tightening vise.



If I didn’t get outside, I’d never be able to breathe. If I didn’t get outside, it felt like I was going to turn inside out, that my body would just give way and my insides would pour out. Wait . . . I was outside. It was dark and the air was cool, but I still couldn’t breathe. Why couldn’t I breathe?

I had to hold on to Hunt to keep from stumbling backward and falling. Panic pooled in my body, lapping around my chin, threatening to pull me under any second now.

“Sit down.”

Hunt’s face appeared in front of me, blurry then clear, blurry then clear.

“Kelsey, just sit down.”

Now that I thought about it, my legs were shaking. I didn’t think I could walk long enough to find a place, so I just reached for the gravel road.

Instead, Hunt scooped me up and placed me on a bench. I looked around. We were in a boat. A boat of blue that someone had tied up outside their pastel green house. The details helped somehow, so I searched for more. Dark green shutters. Three floors. A mangy dog sleeping on the porch. A child’s toys forgotten in a corner.

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