I closed my eyes, feeling my throat burn.
“In class today, someone said something hilarious, and my first thought was I couldn’t wait to tell Phillip. That he’d get a kick out of the joke. Then I remembered I couldn’t tell him,” Sebastian said. “I walked into the lunchroom yesterday looking for you.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“I miss them, Lena.” His shoulder pressed lightly into mine. “I miss you.”
Opening my eyes, I let myself lean into him. “I’m here, though.”
“Are you really?”
I blinked. “Yeah.”
Sebastian was quiet for a long moment. “It’s good to talk about them, you know? At least that’s what the grief counselors have been saying.”
Talking about Megan and the guys hurt like a gunshot blast to the chest, so I couldn’t imagine how it felt good.
When I didn’t answer, he asked the same question Abbi had: “Do you remember the accident?”
I gave the same answer I’d given the girls. “Only bits and pieces.”
He nodded slowly. “Do you... Do you know why you left with them without coming to me?”
A sixth sense told me he wanted to talk to me about something...about something I’d been super avoiding. I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. The reasoning now seemed so stupid. So incredibly dumb. But I was tired of saying “I don’t know” and exhausted with telling half truths and lies. “You were with Skylar and I...I just didn’t want to bother you.” When I peeked over at him, he was looking at me like he had no idea what I was talking about. “I didn’t see you after she showed up. I didn’t want to come looking for you. I figured you guys wanted...private time or something.”
An emotion I couldn’t quite decipher flickered on his face, and he turned his head. A muscle along his jaw flexed. “Hell,” he muttered, thrusting his fingers through his hair. His fingers scrunched. “I don’t know why you think Skylar and I needed private time, but I would’ve appreciated the interruption. I thought you were just having fun.”
Under the covers, I crossed my ankles. “Okay.”
“No. Seriously.” He dropped his hand and his hair flopped back onto his forehead. “Skylar wanted to talk to me about...about getting back together. I spent that entire time with her trying to explain that getting back together wasn’t going to happen. She was really upset. Crying and everything.”
Surprise shot through me. “You’re not back with Skylar?”
“No.” He laughed. “When we broke up in the spring, it was over. Done. Not going back there. Nothing against her, I still care about her, but that’s just not going to happen.”
There was the part of me, the old part, that wanted to dissect every single word he’d just said. Everything he had been saying. That old part of me wanted to figure out if he was telling the truth or downplaying what was happening so he didn’t hurt my feelings.
The new part of me didn’t do that now.
Sebastian had no reason to lie about this.
“When I was talking to her, I got a text message from Abbi, when she was looking for you and Megan.” This time, he scrubbed his hand over his jaw. “Some of the people leaving the party had seen the accident, recognized Chris’s SUV and came back to the party, since the road was blocked. That’s when I knew something had happened. I tried calling you. Texting you.”
The missed calls and texts sat unread and unchecked on my phone.
He exhaled roughly. Several heartbeats passed. “How are you really doing?”
That simple question cut straight through me, wrecked into the walls, opening up a tiny crack. “I don’t want to go to school next week,” I whispered. “I don’t know if I can see everyone when I’m...”
“When you’re what?”
When I’m responsible for my friends’ deaths.
Thinking those words caused my heart to jump a beat and my throat closed up. I wasn’t ready to go back to school. And I wasn’t ready to talk about the agony and the pain, and all the guilt. I wasn’t ready to put those messy, bitter emotions to words. I didn’t know how to admit to my friends that I loved, to the boy that I’d been in love with all this time, that I could’ve stopped what had happened. That I could’ve done better.
“All right,” he said. “We don’t have to talk anymore.”
A knot formed. “Thank you.”
“Things will eventually be better.” Reaching between us, he found my left hand and carefully threaded his fingers through mine. “You know how I know?”
“How?” My eyes were getting too heavy to keep open.
He squeezed my fingers. “You left the balcony door unlocked.”
Tuesday afternoon I sat in the middle of my bed, staring at my phone. Mom was downstairs, attempting to handle the few accounts she was able to access from home. She’d told me this morning that she had talked to Dad. It was the first time she’d brought him up since he’d been at the hospital.
She’d told me that he was going to make an effort to be more present, whatever the hell that meant.
I wasn’t expecting anything to be different. Dad would sporadically call and I wouldn’t answer. Nearly dying changed a lot of things, but not that.
Glancing at the space on the bed beside me, I thought about last night. I had no idea what time Sebastian had left, because I’d fallen asleep by then. All I knew was that when I woke up this morning, he was gone.
Things will eventually be better.
Would they? When I first woke up this morning, before the fog of sleep completely cleared, I could almost believe that they would. Until I shifted and pain shot across my chest.
I’d thought that maybe things were better, until I remembered that my friends were dead.
Until I remembered that I could’ve kept them alive.
Sucking in a sharp breath, I winced as a burning sensation arced across my ribs. I swallowed hard, growing uneasy and restless.
Coach Rogers had called this morning. I hadn’t known it was him until Mom brought the phone to me, and at that point there was no way I could turn the call down.
I had taken it with a trembling hand, my stomach knotted in dread. Coach was strict. Girls had been kicked off the team for far less than what I’d been involved in.
I rubbed my hand over my forehead. Coach had asked how I was feeling and I told him I was getting better. He’d asked about my arm, and I said that it could be several weeks before I got the cast removed.
He was up front about my position, and I was surprised when he told me that he expected to see me at the practices and at the games. I was shocked when he said I still had a spot on the team.
That was not how I’d expected the call to go.
Coach was going to move in one of the girls from the junior team and play it by ear. I thought I might’ve said okay.
He didn’t ask about Megan or the guys.
Part of me wondered if my mom had said something to him, because how could he not bring up Megan? She was such an important part of the team, better than our captain. Megan would land a spot on a college team.
Megan would have landed a spot. The call ended with Coach telling me to take care of myself and that he expected to see me next week. When I hung up, Mom took the phone and I just sat, staring at my own phone, knowing there were unopened texts and unheard voice mails. But I couldn’t think about those—I could think only about what Coach had said.
He wanted me on the team, but I...I couldn’t picture myself doing it. Traveling with the team and sitting on the bench, pretending like I hadn’t started playing volleyball because of Megan. Pretending that it was okay that she was no longer there.
My gaze fell to the knee pads in my closet, and I knew right then.
I slipped off the bed and shuffled over to them. I braced my bad arm against my ribs as I bent down and snatched them off the floor. I tossed them into the back of the closet, beyond the books and the jeans. I closed the door and stepped back.
I wouldn’t need them again.
* * *
Saturday morning Lori sat on the kitchen table, her feet on the seat of a chair. If Mom was home, she’d be losing her mind, but she was out running a thousand errands. Normally Lori didn’t come home on the weekends, since it was quite the hike from Radford to Clearbrook, but Mom didn’t want me left alone, afraid my lungs would deflate or something.