Chapter 12:

The next two weeks were, in a word: shit. Like they were literal ass. James was horribly, horribly distant; he didn't look at me in class, let alone talk to me. When we saw each other in passing, he gave me a smooth nod but nothing more. Not even a smile. And didn't I feel like the idiot, offering a grin and even a petite wave, desperate to keep him close somehow no matter how hard I could feel him yanking away. Realistically, this was probably for the best. The wedding was coming faster than a pubescent virgin and there was nothing either of us could do to stop it, and fucking your step was just downright weird—was it even legal?—so I suppose we didn't even have a choice.

But still, every time I saw him my heart wrung itself out over my stomach and my toes caught a ZING of lightning. And I would immediately look away and hold my head higher, trying to balance my invisible Bitch Crown and remind myself that I was the queen and queens did not falter in the presence of their subjects.

Yeah. I had to pretend James was beneath me to get through the day. Like I said, the weeks were literal ass.

Of course, sheer will power was not going to be the only thing to save me and I knew it. That's where Chris came in.

"Hello?" he answered, obviously more than a little startled by my ring.

"Can we torch?" I blurted out. Smooth as ever, obviously. No greetings, no politeness, just gruff demands. Because that's how a lady handles herself, and Harley Smith is the epitome of feminine etiquette!

There was a moment of silence. "Excuse me?"

"Can we smoke?" I repeated but dropped the lingo. In my insecurity, I tried to make it seem like I knew what I was talking about. I'd smoked weed exactly four times, and I only remembered two times. Apparently Drunk Harley only thought it was okay to smoke when she was blackout, like it made some sort of difference. From what I could remember, it was a wild ride, but quickly after the room started to spin away from me I blacked out.

I just kind of knew and hoped that this was what I needed.

"Since when do you smoke?" he had every right to ask that because I didn't smoke. Every time he'd come to see me when he was high, I'd yell bloody murder at him and smack his arm a few times. But to be fair, he was the ultimate shit stick when he was high. He would literally forget what we were talking about mid-conversation. I didn't waste my time talking to lamps or walls or coffee tables so why was I wasting my time talking to him when he was like that? I'd quickly grown impatient with his habit and if he was going to get anything out of me, he was going to have to either be sober or a damn good actor.

"Since I fucking want to, okay?" I snapped back and harshly bit into a Saltine. The crumbs dusted my cleavage and I inwardly groaned. God, I'd be adjusting my bra around those fucking crumbs until I showered or changed.

"Whoa, cool it sister," Chris had a sliver of a warning's edge to his voice. "You called me, remember? Reel it in."

Begrudgingly, I took a deep, audible breath and then sighed it out. Hmm. It helped. "Can we smoke? I just…I think I need it."

"That's a good girl," I hated how his voice sounded like rivers of Dove chocolate and I hated how it turned my ribs to pudding and I hated how the backs of my knees began to dew. I fucking hated him with everything I had. "I'll see you in ten."

Just like I knew he would, he showed up in twenty, and he tried to ignore the way my sweatpants sat on my hips and how my cami didn't meet the waistband but I saw one of his eyebrows cock and I sighed again. I think we'd be running in circles around each other long after we'd stop talking, long after we'd booted each other from our lives and found what real happiness tasted like.

"Welcome aboard," Chris cooed when I shut the door behind me. He pulled out of the driveway and sped down the road.

"Ew," I just curled my lip at him and wrinkled my nose a bit. For a moment I thought I wanted to laugh, and I would have laughed if it had been a few months ago, but I decided he was gross and stupid. But I think I caught him right after a shower; his blond hair was damp and dark, erected this way and that just like I knew his fingers would pull it. He threw me a glare, but not a real glare. Just a hey, I'm doing this for you glare. It was safer that I knew his looks.

"So what's with the sudden craving, huh?" his idle chatter was mildly revolting. I hated feeling like we had to repave a road we'd travelled down more times than I had fingers to count. Getting to know someone was awkward and hard enough, but getting comfortable again with someone you already knew so well felt like eating wasabi: bitter and tangy and flaming on your tongue, making you wince with every careful word. We weren't supposed to be walking on eggshells. I'd seen him naked, for God's sake. I'd had his dick in my mouth. This was fucking stupid.

"I just need it," I muttered to my cleavage. Ah, great comeback. That'll throw him off your trail, girl!

"I'm sorry, I don't deal with brats," Chris ran his fingers through his hair and fluffed it up, sliding his words to me like a crisp $50 across his dark dashboard, bribing me with harsh words to talk. "If you want to talk about it, then go for it. But I'm not going to yank it out of you."

"Since when do you care about my life problems?" I snapped. "You've been one of the bigger ones for two years now."

He chuckled twice, a sweet sound, and leaned back into the seat, driving with one wrist on the wheel and a smirk slung like a hammock on his lips. "I'll always care about you, Harley. A guy can't deal with one crazy bitch for this long and just torch it all in a handful of months. Don't be an idiot. I'm just trying to offer you a shoulder to cry on. Rip out my throat for trying to be a nice guy, why don't you?"

But Chris wasn't a nice guy, and I knew that. He was a sly, conniving little parasite, a tick buried deep beneath my skin, and he knew exactly how to use his words. I wasn't entirely positive he had a soul. With the true emotional range of a toothpick, he couldn't possibly feel half of the things he expressed. He was just a master of manipulation.

I had to be literally pathetic to believe him. And here I was, eyeing his ski slope profile with suspicion, starting to slip and trip into the palm of his hand.

I was so fucking pathetic.

"I don't believe you," I said calmly, but I marveled at how steady my voice was because my heart was shaking.

A single snort. "Suit yourself." Silence.

We rolled into a park and he jammed the brakes before he flipped the car off.

"Destination: Blaze Town," I hated how warm the smile he threw me was. I wanted to punch it right off his damn face. I hated how he made me feel: stupid and scared and annoyed and angry and sad and not lonely anymore. I hated the ease with which he ambled across the grass. I hated that he chose to sit on the swings because it was sweet and charming and fun and he was sweet and charming and fun when he wanted to be but malicious and rude and ruthless when he was comfortable. I hated that I knew exactly who he was but he fooled me every time.

I plopped down on the swing next to him. Perched precariously on his lap were a baggie of green dust and a glass pipe and a Tweedy Bird lighter. His fingers, slightly blackened at the tips and nails bitten down to small crescent moons, pinched nip after nip of the pre-ground weed from the plastic bag and trickled it into the bowl, pressing down occasionally to pack it tight. Bugs zipped back and forth, muttered around my ears and blended into my sweatpants and stoked my annoyance.

"Ugh, I'm going to destroy these bugs!" I snarled as I slapped at one on my forearm. When I become Grand Supreme Ruler of the World, the first thing on the To Do List is nuke every last insect (with special attention on arachnids) within a fifty-mile radius of my body.

"Don't worry, the smell of weed will get rid of them," he lifted the bowl and pressed it to my lips. "Christen it."

Clearly still new to the practice, I fumbled around the outside of the pipe to find the carb, stuffing my finger over it once I reached it and cradling the glass in my hand. In a single strike Chris deftly flicked the lighter to life and set it to the weed. I inhaled to grab the flame. It pulled deep into the ground green grass and started to char it, broil it, curl it, an orange halo stringing around the burnt goods like satanic Christmas lights. My tainted breath traveled deep into my lungs, and once they were full, I pulled the bowl from my lips and held the smoke there.

Three, two, one, three two one, three two—

I exhaled long and hard, a steady stream of grey huffed from my mouth. It didn't dance and curl delicately against the night sky like tobacco smoke did, elegant in its svelte slink into the air. Instead, it quickly bled from between my teeth and disappeared, leaving only a rank, skunk-like smell behind it.

I didn't know if the oxygen depravation from holding my breath made the world suddenly rush, or if I was that much of a lightweight.

"Damn," Chris raised his eyebrows in approval as he accepted the pipe from my hand. "Nice tug, Smith." He demanded the flame again and dipped it into the bowl for himself. He took a far bigger hit than me, but he knew how to make the most of every precious second of inhaling. The blaze of the lighter eerily lit up his face, and as I blinked a few times, I could have sworn he was holding his own soul in his palms.

We passed the bowl back a few more times, but I had to hit the brakes after my fourth hit. Seconds after my third, I'd felt my toes leave the earth, and good Lord, I was so high I was shaking hands with Jesus. My eyelids curled around my pupils in a squint. I forgot what I was doing.

He continued to finish the bowl without a word, and I was basking in the quiet, soft glow of the silence. This was certainly what I needed; something about this feeling felt exactly like home.

Oh, I have no idea how long we sat there. Obviously it felt like hours, but it was probably about twenty minutes. I went on an entire journey from one end of the universe to the other, my body trapped on earth with my chin tipped to the sky, gaze on the stars, while I danced between the planets and traced the constellations in Technicolor. I felt the throbbing of some unknown song banging in my eardrums, but the notes were in my flesh and I was less a part of this world than the legends of the Greek gods. It was amazing. I was home.

Suddenly my swing swayed slightly to the right, and I couldn't force my head to move until I felt a delicate peck on my cheek. My eyes eased right into the trap of Chris's stare, and I was weaved anew in a different, better universe. But the constellations of his eyes were not as otherworldly as my galactic exploration of our own sky; I knew these so well, I'd ridden them to the outskirts and back, and I loved them. I would always love them.

The most sickening, pleading look dewed his cheeks. I'd seen it a million times before when he'd beg me to take him back, or say he was sorry, or promise to treat me like the princess I was from now on.

But I wasn't prepared for the words that he was about to say.

"Please come home."

He leaned in and kissed my lips like he new he'd just hammered me in the nose before standing and walking back toward his car.

The weight of time itself came crashing down onto my chest and I couldn't breathe. Oh, now I knew so very well that Chris would always be home. Chris would be home until I moved. Chris would be home until I burned him to the ground. Chris would be home until someone taught me how to love myself or I loved someone new. Chris would be home until I was ninety-five years old, an IV jammed into my withered hand, and I was a wrinkled sack of useless sass that had long since lost her punch with some disease that hadn't been discovered yet eating me from the inside out. Chris came first, and Chris would be the last to leave, and I would be the one left to pick up the pieces every time I decided to let him sweep through. Chris was the home I would always recognize.

I felt so defeated and so pathetic and I knew home and love and romance weren't supposed to make me feel this way but he'd always made me give everything up and now was no exception. A string of blackened good intentions connected our sternums, and as he walked further away, I stood and followed. The sky wheeled around me and I was following my Savior into the light, certainly this was heaven because the way he lifted me onto the hood of his car, knotted his fingers into my hair, and kissed me could be nothing less than a gift from God.

I prayed every day for something to feel like home again, but you can't make homes out of people and I learned this lesson already—he'd beaten it into my skull—but I needed to try just one more time. Just to prove it. Just to carve my bones to powder once more.

It was probably—surely—because I was high and everything in me felt alive but he pressed every button he knew I had and he knew just how to make me melt. He'd memorized my map and traced it so many times that I swore it was part of his fingerprint. I didn't know if I was unraveling and unwinding and bending and breaking for him because his skin on mine felt like the physical manifestation of sweet tea or because this was truly coming home.

Here, in his arms as he pressed me hard against his torso and lifted me from the hood of the car enough to slip my sweatpants and underwear down, was truly coming home and I couldn't explain how or why he'd left such a deep scar on me that pleaded to be stroked.

We had been fondling and prodding and petting and grabbing and rubbing and gasping and sighing for eons and when he finally let himself press into me I felt our souls blur and blend.

This was where it was safe.

"I love you," Chris whimpered into my hair, and I choked on relief as I grabbed him tighter and writhed against his chest, arching into the web he was spinning me into and trying to forget that those three words were in his vocabulary only when he was inside of me.

"I love you," he thrust and bit my neck.

"I love you." Thrust.

"I love you."


"I love you."


"I love you."


I got lost between the two and I knew I didn't trust him. My blood craved him, my veins craved his artificial sweetness, that sugar he powdered me in when he wanted something or knew he had to do something to keep me where he wanted. In the back of my bones, my pride was begging me to stop, hand in hand with my logic, but the fire was ripping me to shreds and I couldn't do anything but watch.

I'd set myself on fire to keep him warm.

Through warmth and flaming touch, he finally rested his head on my chest and kissed each of my breasts once through my cami. Forehead pressed to my ribs, he whispered:

"Please come home, Har."

He literally knew all the right words. We'd known each other far too long and had been sewn together far too long and were a part of each other far too long, and I knew the best and worst of him but he knew how to break me down. I'd never been emotional for anyone but him and he relished the taste of my heart on his tongue before he bit down. I'll never forgive myself for how I bled for him, or him for how he lapped it up and loved it. He was ruthless. He was a liar. He was intentionally malicious and enjoyed breaking me over and over and over again to watch me build myself back up from the rubble, to hear me promise myself that I was done, and to laugh at me as I played with fire and gasoline time and time again.

He didn't mean a thing. He didn't mean a word.

But he'd already shattered me again.

"You have got to be joking!" Kailin shrieked at me.

"Okay, hey, tone it down," I winced and rubbed my temples, easing back into the comfortable couch. "You're blowing up my skull."

"No way, not this time," the blonde pressed, and she actually looked mad. I was a little surprised. The empty look in her eyes was gone. All that was left was the roiling green of frustration. "Harley, are you fucking kidding me?! How could you fuck him again?! You said last time that that was it forever!"

"I was high, it wasn't like I did it on purpose." Oh, that was a good one. Blame the drugs. Where did I learn that one, from a freshman? I had always prided myself on taking responsibility for my actions and owning them like a Bad Bitch, but this wasn't something I could explain. I couldn't explain it to myself. I truly felt like an idiot. I was embarrassed and ashamed and this bitch wasn't helping one little bit.

"Well, I've never been high, so I wouldn't know," she looked down and away as she traced the lid of her coffee with one finger. "But come on, girl, that's like…that was stupid. What the hell?!"

Oh man, if Kailin's calling your decision stupid, you know you need to choke on a dick and die.

"You and that James kid have been at it forever," she continued. "Chris wasn't your only option."

I snorted. "Well see, the thing about that is that…look, it just can't be a thing, okay?" Yeah, like I was going to explain to Kailin that I had a thing for my soon-to-be step-brother. That was a thing that was never going to be a thing! "I made a mistake, okay? Can we let it die?"

I could have cried at the look that swam in her grassy irises if I wasn't so stony. She cared so much, so deeply, I was the best friend she'd ever had and I'd stomp anyone if she needed me to and she knew it. She wanted so desperately to help. She wanted so desperately to bring me back. But for the life of her, she couldn't touch me.

"Okay," she murmured.

I was so sorry.