A weak, watery sunlight filtering through the tissue paper curtains woke me the next morning. The breeze that snuck in through the cracked window smelled of rain. My eyelids were gummed together from mascara and sleep, blurring the sharp edges of the room together in a blue-gray watercolor painting. I knuckled them hard, the creases in my fingers coming away black.
My stiff joints cracked like popcorn as I stretched. The ache in my chest, a chronic side effect of my nightmares, still pressed heavy on my sternum. My therapist attributed it to the memory of being trapped in the car door after the crash, but didn't seem to know how to get rid of it.
Uselessness had been one of my many complaints about him.
I tried to bury the memory as I always did, but the one that rose to take its place did nothing to alleviate my discomfort. Last night with Tyler emerged murky from my muddled thoughts, settling itself firmly in the forefront of my mind. I shivered involuntarily; he had come to my aid and then withdrawn. I had never liked it when my parents or shrink or friends had pressed me to talk about the crash believing it would help me, but the manner in which Tyler had walled himself off made me feel contaminated. Like there was something wrong with me, which, I suppose there was.
I swung my legs off the bed, more goosebumps rising on my arms as my feet touched the cold floor, and walked to the door. The house was silent except for the soft groaning of pipes and the almost indecipherable breathing of Tyler on the couch. I tiptoed to the front door, cursing the creak of the floor under my weight, but he remained fast asleep.
His face was relaxed, peaceful, the way sleep was supposed to look. His right arm was crossed over his chest, resting on his heart, while the other dangled out over empty air, palm up. The sunlight illuminated a white scar that divided his hand perfectly in two. One leg protruded off the edge of the couch that was too small for the length of his body, and the blanket warmed more of the floor than it did him. Even as I watched, he shifted and the rest of the blanket slide to the floor, but he slept on.
A quick flashback of him straightening the covers around me last night ran across my mind. I quietly turned the doorknob and slipped out into the morning.
Dreary storm clouds hung low in the sky, suffocating me with their proximity. A mist that wasn't quite a drizzle, but still damp enough to be irritating clung to my skin and limp hair. Something in my peripheral vision caught my eye. The corner of a neighbor's shade flipped back into place just as I looked back over my shoulder.
I must have looked like a one-night stand with my smeared, make-up darkened face, wrinkled clothes that were still twisted with sleeps and dirty, bare feet. I didn't even have shoes in my hand.
My cellphone rang as I turned right at the end of the street and ducked into a side-alley off of Main Street. A selfie of my mother and our cat, Nordstrom, appeared on my screen. I bit my lip. I couldn't get away with ignoring my mom forever; sooner or later she would take it upon herself to drive down to school.
Resigned, I swiped my thumb right to open the call.
"Hey, mom," I said, trying to keep my voice natural as I tiptoed around broken bottles and water-logged trash. She would drag me straight back home if she could see me now.
"Megan," she said. The pause after my name, my real name, was a sign of trouble. The fact that she wasn't demanding if I was okay was a sign I was in very deep shit.
"I'm sorry." My toes squished into something that was a combination of mud and unidentifiable oozing garbage. I gagged and picked up my pace, finally emerging onto a sidewalk just down the street from my dorm.
"We had an agreement," she said.
"I know, it's just that I've been trying to settle into school and my roommate is—well it's been a bit of an adjustment," I said, pausing to wipe my feet off in the wet grass. I was suddenly glad for the rain.
"Which is exactly why we agreed that you would call every couple of days. " I could picture her sitting at the island in our kitchen, drinking out of her blue-spotted mug that had been glued back together so many times it was more cracks than cup. Her extra-large black sweater she always wore to bed would be hanging off her shoulder and the newspaper would be spread across the entire surface of the counter so she could survey the stories at large before deciding which one would start her day. "You have a very different adjustment compared to other students. The deal was if you wanted to go away to school, you had to check in with us and you had to attend counseling. Let me take a wild guess and say you haven't even called the counseling center."
I let my silence answer. There was the sound of the mug being set down in the background.
"Megan, I need you to be honest with me—"
"You know I hate counseling, Mom," I said.
I ducked my head as a couple of early-rising joggers passed me. Their judging eyes struck me like pebbles, stinging slightly as I crossed the street to my building, but fading as soon I forgot them.
"I know you didn't like Dr. Croton's methods, honey, but that doesn't mean you can't find someone you like talking to."
"I don't like talking to anyone," I said.
"You can't keep it bottled up inside all of the time. I know how much you miss Danny, I know how hard it is to be away at school without him, but burying him won't make you feel better."
"Poor word choice, Mom," I sighed, keying into my building.
"Sweetie," she paused, realizing what she had said. "I'm sorry. I just want you to get better."
I paused on the way up the stairs. Bit my lip. Closed my eyes. I wanted to be indignant, angry, tell my mom that I was an adult and this was my life to live the way I wanted. But, I couldn't do that after what the crash had put my parents through, not after everything my mom had done for me.
"I know. You're right we had a deal. I'll sign up for counseling next week."
"And?" she prompted.
"And I'll call more often," I promised.
"Your dad is here, do you want to talk to him?"
I smiled slightly. Dad would have just walked in the front door, faded red baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, sneakers muddy from the hike he took every Saturday morning even in the rain. Said it helped keep him from petrifying on the couch.
He would join my mom at the island for about fifteen minutes, skim the papers she had already read for any headlines he thought were worth his time and then he would leave to sit in his study with his pipe and the most recent book he had checked out of the library. It was usually some type of historical fiction, although lately he had been branching out.
There was a pause and then a gruff voice said, "How are you, Dash?"
He had rather easily transitioned to my nickname when I had asked to be called by it. My mother only remembered a handful of times.
"I'm all right, I guess." He wasn't fooled. For a man of few words, Dad was uncannily perceptive.
"Needle and thread, right?" he asked, a slight chuckle in his voice.
I smiled though he couldn't see. "Needle and a thread," I agreed.
My therapist, Dr. Croton, a pompous older man who thought he knew better than everyone else and always reeked of cologne, once described my situation as a needle and a thread. After a particularly bad session in which I had screamed obscenities at him, he gave a very enlightening speech about how I could think of my situation as a needle and a thread. I was trying to overcome too many challenges in a small amount of time or, in the words of his astute metaphor, trying to force too large a thread through a needle too quickly.
I had asked if he ripped that comparison off a middle-school advice blog and then stormed out. When I had told my mom, she tried to comfort me by telling me he was only trying to help. When I had told my dad, he had asked Dr. Croton where he had gotten his degree from and then inquired about switching therapists.
"You take all the time you need until you figure out how to get that thread through the needle."
"Will do, Dad," I said, feeling the weight lift from my chest. "I love you."
My shoes were still outside the door, abandoned casualties from the night before. I picked them up, thumbing off the mud that had caked along the bottom. The hair tie was gone from the door. How thoughtful.
The door was open when I tried the handle and swung inward to reveal a disaster scene. There were clothes strewn over Amber's side of the room, and pillows were stacked on her desk while books and magazines were tented on the ground. My side of the room was untouched.
Amber herself was sitting on her bed where sheets were half off the mattress, staring out the window. There was no make-up on her face for once; she looked strangely washed out without it. Or maybe that's because she had been crying. Her eyes were puffy and red.
A small part of me felt bad, but then I remembered last night and the feeling vanished. The nasty side of me wanted to make a sarcastic comment, but I could still hear my mother's voice in my head.
I decided to meet myself halfway.
"Re-decorating?" I asked, going to throw my shoes in the closet.
"Shut up," she said quietly. A thin icing of venom coated her words.
"You know," I said, rounding on her. "I almost felt bad for you, but you're such an unforgiving bitch, I don't know why."
"And you're so much more likeable?" she asked, still not looking at me.
"At least I respect you as a human being," I snapped. My blood boiled beneath my skin in time with my rising disbelief.
Amber snorted. "Please, you don't respect me; you know nothing about me." She finally slid off the bed, still refusing to look at me, and began fixing her sheets.
"I know you don't respect me enough to let me live in my own room." I watched her struggling to fit the rounded sheet over the corner of the mattress.
"You're never here anyway." The sheet snapped into place only to have the opposite corner spring loose.
"That's not the point! I have the right to sleep in my own bed without a new half-naked guy here every other night."
"That's right, I'm a huge slut!" she yelled, rounding on me and ripping the bed sheet clean off. Fury had flushed her face and burned her eyes. "At least I don't have a drinking problem!"
"You judged me the second you walking in the door," I said coldly. "You don't know a thing about what I've been through."
"And you judged me right back! Don't act all high and mighty when you're guilty of the same thing you're accusing me of. At least I can admit it."
"I never pretended to be perfect," I snapped.
"And neither did I!" She stuffed her feet into beat up sneakers and grabbed a sweatshirt off her chair. "Don't think you're the only one who's been through something." She slammed the door behind her.
"Bitch," I muttered at the closed door. I went to grab my bath towel from my closet only to freeze in place when there was a knock on the door.
Feeling a sense of savage happiness at Amber being in the same position I was last night, I went over to open the door for the sole purpose of gloating.
But it wasn't Amber at the door; it was Chris.
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