Falling into you, p.17
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       Falling into You, p.17
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         Part #1 of Falling series by Jasinda Wilder
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“And you learn to love someone else?” I ask, because I have to know.

  He sits up and now we’re facing each other, cross-legged. “I don’t know about that. ” His eyes are vulnerable, letting me in. “I’m working on it, though. I’ll let you know. ”

  He means me.

  “How do you compete with a ghost, Colton?” I whisper the question into a long silence.

  He shrugs. “I don’t know. You don’t. You just understand that there’s a part of you that you can’t give away, because it belongs to a dead person. I don’t know. ”

  “Can we do this? You and me? You with your ghost of India, me with mine of Kyle?”

  He takes my hands, rubs my knuckles with his thumbs. “All we can do is try, do our best. Give as much as we have to give, one day at a time. One breath at a time. ”

  “I don’t know how to do this. I’m scared. ” I’m unable to look at him, unable to meet his eyes.

  He does the thing with his fingers on my chin, tilting my face to his. Except this time, he does it and leans in, and his lips brush mine. “I don’t either, and so am I. But if we want to live, to not be half-ghosts ourselves, stuck loving the memory of someone who’s gone, then we have to try. ” He kisses me again. “We understand each other, Nelly. We’ve both lost someone we love. We both have scars and regrets and anger. We can do this together. ”

  I breathe through the fear, the trembling, the desire to escape. “I like it when you call me Nelly. No one has ever called me that before. ”

  He just smiles and holds me closer.

  Chapter 10: Silencing the Ghosts

  A month later

  Things returned to something like normal, except Colton would come over and hang out. Things reverted to a less physical stage, although I felt just as much attraction to him, if not more, and I felt his eyes on me frequently. We kissed a few times, but we seemed to have put an unspoken hold on physical affection. I’m not sure why this is. I’m not sure if I like it. I want him. I need his touch.

  I attend classes at NYU, I run, I work my shifts as a cocktail waitress, and I play music. And I see Colton, but not nearly enough. Above all, I try not to freak out about my impending acceptance or rejection to the college of performing arts. In all the craziness of meeting Colton in the park and the subsequent events, I managed to actually forget the letter is coming.

  The letter comes, finally, brought in along with all my other mail by Colton. I’m sitting on my kitchen counter, feet on a chair, practicing a song when Colton knocks on my door, entering even as he knocks. He hands me the stack of envelopes, which I sort through. The letter from NYU is on the bottom, of course. When I get it, my heart starts pounding and I drop all the other mail.

  “What is it?” Colton asks, seeing my reaction.

  “I applied to the college of performing arts at the university. It’s not a guaranteed acceptance thing, and this letter tells me if I got in or not. ” I slide my finger under the flap and pull the single sheet of paper out. At which point my courage fails me and I wig out, flapping my hands and shrieking like a teenager. “I can’t look! You read it to me,” I say, handing it to him.

  Colton takes it, glances at it, then hands it back. “No, it’s yours. You read it. ” There’s an odd expression on his face which I can’t interpret.

  “I’m too nervous,” I say. “Please? Read it to me?”

  “You should read it yourself, Nelly-baby. It won’t be the same as you reading the acceptance yourself. ”

  “You don’t know I got in,” I say, shoving it at him, curious and irritated now. “Please? Please read it to me?” I shouldn’t push this, I know. I can see by the hardening of his features that this is an issue. A button. But now I have it in my teeth and I’m not letting go.

  “No, Nell. I’m not reading it to you. It’s your acceptance letter, not mine. ” He turns away, digging a fist into his pocket and rattling loose change.

  He’s staring out the window, his shoulders hunched, his jaw tensed.

  “Come on, Colton. What’s the big deal? I want to share this moment with you. ”

  He whirls on me, eyes hot and pained and angry. “You want to know the big deal? I can’t f**king read! Okay? That’s the big deal. I can’t f**king read. ” He turns back to the window, fists curled at his sides.

  I’m stunned. “Wha-what? You can’t read? Like…at all? How—how is that possible?” I approach him from behind and tentatively, gingerly, lay a hand on his shoulder.

  His muscular shoulder is a rock beneath my hand. He doesn’t turn when he speaks, and his voice is pitched so low I have to strain to hear him.

  Page 48

 

  “I’m dyslexic. Like, severely. I can read, but really, really bad, and it takes me f**king forever to get through even the simplest sentences. A goddamned first-grader can read better than me, okay? If I sit in an absolutely silent room with no distractions and focus really hard for an hour or two, I might be able to puzzle out one full article in a newspaper, which is written at a fifth-grade level or some shit. ”

  So much clicks into place now. “That’s part of why you’re here, in New York, isn’t it? Part of the issue with your parents. ”

  He bobs his head twice, a short, sharp jerk of acknowledgement. “Yeah. It’s been a problem my whole life. Back when I was a kid, shit was less figured out than it is now. Nowadays, you got all sorts of resources for ‘learning disabled’ kids like me,” he uses air quotes around the phrase. “They got IEDs and learning labs and tutors and all sorts of nifty shit. When I was a kid, in a rural district like where we grew up, I didn’t have none of that. They just thought I was stupid. So did my parents. They had me tested and stuff, but dyslexia wasn’t a huge thing on people’s radar, or whatever, so they didn’t know what to look for and I didn’t know how to explain what my deal was. ”

  “All I really know about dyslexia is that it’s got something to do with difficulty reading. ” I rub my hand in circles on his granite shoulder

  He nods, and finally turns to me. I swallow hard and decide to push past the barrier between us. I close in against him, push my body flush with his, slide my hands up underneath his arms and clutch his back. I tilt my head up to look at him, resting my chin on his chest. His scent and his heat and his hardness intoxicate me, a heady rush of need bolting through me.

  “Yeah, basically, but it’s more than that,” he says. “It’s…nothing written down makes any sense to me. Letters, numbers, sentences, math equations…everything. I can do a shitload of fairly advanced math in my head, I’ve got a good vocabulary, I understand grammar, but it all has to be orally communicated to me. Tell me a word, what it means, and it’s mine. Explain a mathematical idea to me, I got it, no f**king problem. Write it down? Nothing. It’s like things just jumble up, rearrange into nonsense. I look at this paper here,” he taps the page in my hand with a forefinger, “and I see the letters. I know the alphabet, I can technically read, I can do ‘run spot run’. But when I look at the paper, I swear it’s all bullshit, just letters that make no sense. I have to focus on each letter at a time, each word, sound it out, figure it out. And then I have to go back and put the sentence all together and the paragraph and the page, and that usually means I have to work it all out all over again. It’s f**king laborious as all hell. ”

  “All the songs you write, the lyrics—”

  “All in here. ” He taps his head. “I compose the lyrics, the music, everything, in my head. ”

  I’m stunned. “You don’t have any of it written down anywhere?”

  He laughs, a harsh cough. “No, baby. Not being able to read is bad enough. I can’t write for shit either. It’s just as hard. Harder, actually, because I start out writing what’s in my head, but other shit comes out, like random gibberish. ”

  “So you just have it all memorized?”

  He shrugs. “It’s just how I am. I have a great memory, and musically, I have one of those p
erfect ears. I hear a piece of music, I can play it. The notes, the chords, it all just makes sense to me as soon as I hear it. Mechanical stuff is the same way. I just get it, instinctively. I mean, I had to learn how to do it, just like I had to learn how to play the guitar and use my voice right, but it comes naturally to me. ”

  “And your parents didn’t understand any of this?” I ask.

  He sighs, and it’s laced with a growl. “God, I hate talking about this shit. ” He absently brushes my hair back. “No, they really didn’t. I was their first kid. They made mistakes. I get that. Doesn’t make how it all happened less shitty. ”

  “What happened?”

  He looks down into my eyes, and seems to draw strength from something he sees there. “Like I said, they couldn’t really understand why my problem was. I clearly wasn’t, like, slow or anything. I could talk fine, I could interact socially and tie my shoes and identify colors and patterns and all that, but when the lessons in Kindergarten started requiring me to look at things on the written page, I just couldn’t grasp it. It frustrated everyone. My dad was on the rise, back then, and he had big aspirations. Big plans for me, his firstborn son. I’d be his successor, a doctor or a lawyer or something great like that. He’d decided that’s what my destiny was, and nothing could change his mind. It kept getting harder and harder, because my comprehension of reading and writing was just…nil. I never progressed past the first grade, really. I had to work three times as hard as everyone else to get my homework done, to pass tests, all that. I was barely scraping by, all the way through school. Dad just thought I was lazy. He’d tell me to work harder, to not let anything stop me. He pushed and pushed and pushed, and never really saw how hard I was working just to get by. I barely passed middle school, and I mean barely, and that was with me studying and doing homework for literally four or five hours every night. Because everything is centered around writing the answers, reading the textbooks. Like I said, I can do it, it’s just…so hard as to be nearly impossible, and it takes forever. I was just a f**king kid. I wanted to play football and play with my friends, hang out, all that normal shit. I couldn’t, because I was always in my goddamned room, trying to finish reading the ten pages of history or The Giver. ”

  I rest my forehead against his chest, aching for him. “God, Colton. ”

  “Yeah, it sucked. And Dad just didn’t understand. He’s not a bad person. He’s great, he really is. When it wasn’t all about school, he was great with me. But that began to overshadow everything else as I got older. By high school, I was just angry. All the time. I hated school, I hated the teachers and the principal and my parents and everything. It didn’t help that by the time I was fifteen, Kyle was already this golden boy, perfectly behaved, athletic, all the friends and charming and shit. And I had to study for six hours a day just to get C’s and D’s. And the f**king worst part is that I knew I understood the basic concepts. I knew I wasn’t stupid. I could listen and understand what the lecture was about. I could listen to the lecture and probably recite the damn thing back to the teacher verbatim. If I’d been able to take tests orally, I probably would have been a straight A student. But that just wasn’t an option back then. ” He traces the line of my jaw with a fingertip, down behind my ear, down my neck, and across my collarbone; I shivered under the heat of his touch. “I got in a lot of trouble at school because I was just so f**king angry, so frustrated. And kids made fun of me, of course, because I was always in trouble and barely passing, so I got in a lot of fights. ”

  Page 49

 

  “Kids are awful in high school. ”

  “No kidding,” he says with a bitter laugh. “I didn’t really mind them, honestly. It was shit with my parents that killed me. They just thought I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I was exaggerating my problems to get out of school or something. And they expected me to toe their line, follow their plan. And that plan included college. All I wanted was to work in a garage, build cars. Play my guitar. That wasn’t acceptable. ”

  I’m starting to understand. “So when graduation came…”

  “My dad was insisting I had to apply to all these colleges, Ivy League and everything. ” He laughs, and this laugh is mirthless, full of bitterness and old rage. “Fucking college? I barely graduated high school. I could barely read. I hated school. I was f**king done. I told him this, and he just didn’t care. He’d pull strings so my bad grades wouldn’t matter. Finally, I knew I had to make him understand. I remember the day like it was yesterday. Clear, sunny, beautiful day in June. I’d been graduated for a couple months and was spending all my time in the garage, working on my Camaro. He wanted me to be applying to Harvard and Columbia and Brown, and I wasn’t doing it. It was a constant fight. I finally hashed it out with him on the dock. I told him I wasn’t going to college, not ever. And Dad’s reply? ‘Then you’re on you’re own. ’ He’d pay my way, support me, rent me an apartment and all that, if I went to college. If not, he wouldn’t give me red cent. ” Colton pauses, and I can see this is the hardest part. “It got ugly. He…we fought, like bad. He called me names, told me I was just stupid and lazy. He was angry, I get that, but…it still f**king scarred me for me life. All I ever wanted was his approval, for him to see that I had other skills, that I was smart in other ways. He just couldn’t. Like I said, the fight got ugly. Turned physical. He hit me, I hit him. I ran. Left my car, my Camaro I’d spent f**king years building from scratch. Left all my shit. Grabbed a backpack and some clothes and all the money I had. Bought a bus ticket to New York. Never looked back. Of course, the bus cost pretty much every dollar I had, so by the time I got to the city, I was flat broke, a basically illiterate seventeen year-old kid with anger problems and no plan, no money, no friends, no car, no apartment, nothing. Just a backpack with some crackers and a change of clothes. ”

  The pain in his voice is heartbreaking. I see him in my mind’s eye, a scared, angry, lonely kid forced to fight just to survive. Too proud to go back home, even if he could have. Hungry, cold, alone, living on the streets.

  “Colton…I’m so sorry you had to go through that. ” I hear my voice crack.

  He lifts my chin. “Hey. No tears. Not for me. I made it, didn’t I?”

  “Yeah, but you shouldn’t have had to suffer like that. ” He just shrugs dismissively, and I push back to glare at him. “No, don’t shrug it off. You’ve accomplished so much. You survived. You got yourself off the street. You built a successful business from nothing. You did all that on your own, despite your learning disability. I think it’s incredible. I think you’re incredible. ”

  He shrugs again, rolling his eyes, clearly uncomfortable. I put my hands on his face, loving the feel of his rough stubble under my palms.

  “You’re smart, Colton. You are. You’re talented. I’m amazed by who you are. ”

  “You’re f**king embarrassing me, Nelly. ” Colton wraps his arms around me and pulls me roughly against his chest. “But thanks for saying so. It means more than you know. Now. Did you get in or not? I’m sick of talking about my shit. ”

  I hold the letter up behind his back, reading it over his shoulder. “Yeah. I got in. ”

  “There was never a question. Proud of you, Nelly-baby. ”

  I smile into his chest, breathing in his scent.

  * * *

  I swallow hard. I’m not sure if I can do this. I clutch the neck of my guitar and try not to panic.

  “Ready?” Colton’s voice came from beside me. His knee nudges mine.

  I nod my head. “Yeah. Yeah. I can do this. ”

  “You can do this. Just follow my lead and sing the harmony, okay? Just strum the rhythm like we practiced and let everyone hear that angel voice of yours, okay?”

  I nod again, and flex my fingers. I’ve never performed in public before. I mean, I’ve busked a few times, alone and with Colton, but that’s different. This…this is terrifying. We’re on a stage in a bar, and there’s close to a hundred peo
ple all watching, waiting for us to start. They know Colton, they’re here for him, and intrigued as to who I am. No pressure.

  “Hey everybody. I’m Colt, and this is Nell. We’re gonna play some music for you, is that alright?” There’s applause and some catcalls. Colton glances at me and then back to the crowd. “Yeah, I know she’s gorgeous, boys, but she’s off limits. We’re gonna play some Avett Brothers to start, I think. This is ‘I Would Be Sad’. ”

  He starts off with a complex string-picking arrangement that echoes the banjo of the original. I come in on cue with a simple rhythm-strum and wait for the harmony cue. The rhythm is easy and I’ve practiced it so many times I don’t even have to think about it, so I hit my cue no problem. They’re floored. My voice provides a perfect counterpoint to Colton’s, my clear alto weaving around his rough rasp and together I know we have them in a spell.

  I adjust the rhythm as we transition into the next song, which Colton introduces.

  “Anybody here like City and Colour?” There’s riotous applause of approval and he grins at them. “Good! Then hopefully you’ll like our take on ‘Hello, I’m Delaware’. ”

  I’m strumming as he does the intro and playing it cool, but inside I’m squeeing with excitement. In the back of my head I’m running back to the beginning, when Colton basically announced that I’m his. I like that. Plus, he told them I’m gorgeous. I’m all ashiver.

  I really get into the City and Colour song, because Dallas Green is incredible. I let my voice go, I don’t hold anything back. I sing and let the words roll over me, through me. My nerves are gone and all I know is the music rushing in my veins, the pure beauty of the song and the adrenaline high of knowing I’m killing it.

 
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