Falling into you, p.7
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       Falling into You, p.7

         Part #1 of Falling series by Jasinda Wilder
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I clutched a crumpled, folded piece of paper in my hand. The note. I had it memorized, now. I’d read it and reread it so many times.

  The viewing, a small room filled with too many people. I stood next to the casket, refusing to look in. Stood next to a tastefully-created collage, pictures of Kyle, of us together. Strangers in the pictures, I thought, seeing happy me, happy, living him.

  Words spoken, empty condolences. Hands squeezing mine, lips brushing my cheek. Weeping friends. Cousins. Becca, hugging me. Jason standing in front of me, not speaking, not hugging me, his offered silence the best thing he could have given me.

  Then, oh god…Mr. and Mrs. Calloway, standing in front of me. They’ve been here all the while, but I couldn’t see them. Couldn’t bear to meet their eyes. But now they’re here, hands clasped and threaded between them, two sets of brown eyes so much like Kyle’s, pinning me, searching me. I said little about what happened. There was a storm, a tree fell. Kyle saved me.

  Nothing about the proposal, the ring on my finger, the wrong finger. Nothing about the fact that we were arguing. That it should have been me.

  That if I had done…god, so many things differently, their son would still be alive.

  Nothing about his death being my fault.

  If I had said yes, he would still be alive. We’d have gone up to the bedroom. Made love. The tree would have crashed through the house, but not near us.

  I stared into their eyes and tried to find words.

  “I’m so sorry. ” It was all I could say, and even that was barely audible, shattered words falling like shards from my tongue.

  “Oh Nell…me too. ” Mrs. Calloway wrapped me in a hug, bawled onto my shoulder.

  I stood stiff, the physical contact too much. I had to suck in air through my nose and let it out through my mouth into her straight black hair, trembling and tense. I couldn’t let myself feel. If I felt, I would break.

  I don’t think she understood that I was begging her forgiveness for killing her son. But those three words were all I could dredge up out of myself. Eventually her husband pulled her away and tucked her into his side while she shuddered.

  People came and went, words were spoken. Faces passed in front of me in a blur. I nodded at times, mumbled things. Just so they would know I wasn’t catatonic, that I was physically alive.

  I wasn’t, though. I breathed. My synapses fired, my blood pumped in a circle. But I was dead, dead with Kyle.

  Dad slipped to my side, held me in a one-armed hug. “It’s time, Nell. ”

  I didn’t know what I was time for. I pivoted in his embrace and glanced up at him, brows scrunched.

  He saw the question. “To have the service. To close the casket and…bury him. ”

  I nodded. He pulled me to a chair and I sat down. Mr. Calloway stood with his back to casket and spoke. I heard his words, but they meant nothing. Words about Kyle, about how wonderful he was, how great he was, how much promise he had, cut short. Cut short. True words, but empty in the face of things. Nothing mattered. Kyle was gone, and words meant nothing.

  Mrs. Calloway couldn’t say anything. Jason talked about how Kyle was such a great friend, and those words were true, too.

  Then it was my turn. Everyone was looking at me. Waiting. I stood up and walked to where everyone else had stood, behind a little podium with a disconnected microphone. I picked at the wood with my fingernails, which was painted a dark plum by my mother.

  I knew, then, that I was changed. The old Nell would have known what to say, would have found polite and well-meant words, would have spoken about how incredible Kyle was, how loving and thoughtful, how we had a future together.

  But none of that came out, because I wasn’t that Nell anymore.

  “I loved Kyle. ” I stared at the blonde wood of the podium, because the eyes of the people in the seats would have pierced my armor of numbness, would have spiked through to the river of magma deep inside me that was my emotions.

  “I loved him so much. I still do, but…he’s gone. I don’t know what else to say. ” I pulled off the ring from my right hand and held it up. A few people gasped. “He asked me to marry him. I told him we were too young. I told him…I would go to California with him. He was going to go to Stanford and play football. But I said no, not yet…and now he’s gone. ”

  I couldn’t hold it in anymore, but I had to. I choked the breakdown back, sucked it in and forced it down. I slipped the ring back on my right hand and walked out of the viewing room without looking into the casket. I knew, from when Grandma Calloway died, that the thing in the casket wasn’t Kyle. It was a shell, a husk, an empty clay gourd. I didn’t want to see that. I wanted to see Kyle in my mind as the strong, gloriously gorgeous Adonis, the way his muscles moved and rippled, the way his hands touched me and the way his sweat mingled with mine.

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  The problem was, all I could see when I closed my eyes was that one shoe, his eyes hunting for me as the life bled out of him, his hand curling around my fingers and then falling empty and limp as I was carried away.

  I left the funeral home, bolting out a back exit and making a beeline across wet grass for a huge spreading oak that stood behind the building. By the time I was leaning against the rough bark, my black dress was soaked through and sticking to my skin. My hair hung in damp strings past my shoulders. I shuddered, struggling to hold it in. I breathed, choking on my tongue as I tried to literally bite down on sobs.

  I turned in place and pressed my forehead to the bark, clenching my teeth and panting, whimpering through my lips. Not crying, not crying. Because I couldn’t. I couldn’t let myself.

  I felt a warmth descend over my shoulders, soft silk of a suit coat. I pushed away from the tree and turned to see a pair of sapphirine eyes gazing at me, stunning, piercing, breathtakingly blue. The face was haunting, familiar, chiseled and achingly beautiful like Kyle, but more rugged. Older, harder. Rougher. Less perfect, less statuesque. Longish, shaggy black hair, messy and thick and lustrous and raven-black.

  Colton. Kyle’s brother, older by about five years.

  I hadn’t seen Colton in a long, long time. He left home when Kyle and I were just kids, and he hadn’t been back since. I wasn’t even sure where he lived, what he did. I didn’t think he got along with Mr. Calloway, but I wasn’t sure.

  Colton didn’t say anything, just settled his suit coat over my shoulders and leaned back against the tree trunk, white button down soaking through to show his skin, and the dark ink of a tattoo on his arm and shoulder. Something tribal, maybe.

  I stared at Colton, and he met my gaze, level and calm but still fraught with unspoken pain. He understood my need for silence.

  I felt something hard in the inside pocket, stuck my hand in and withdrew a pack of Marlboros and a Zippo. Colton lifted an eyebrow, taking them from me. He flipped open the top and withdrew a cigarette, flicked the Zippo and lit it. I watched, because watching kept the magma at bay.

  He put the filter between his lips and sucked, and I felt something odd happen inside me as his cheeks hollowed. A feeling as if I knew him, although I didn’t. As if I’d always watched him drag on a smoke and blow it out slowly through pursed lips. As if I’d always looked on in disapproval, but never voiced my thoughts.

  “I know, I know. These things’ll kill me. ” His voice was rough and gravelly and deep, but still melodic somehow.

  “I didn’t say anything. ” That was the most I’d spoken in over forty-eight hours.

  “You don’t have to. I can see it in your eyes. You disapprove. ”

  “I guess. Smoking is bad. Maybe it’s an inherited dislike. ” I shrugged. “I’ve never known anyone who smokes. ”

  “Now you do,” Colton said. “I don’t smoke much. Socially, usually. Or when I’m stressed. ”

  “This counts as stress, I think. ”

  “The death of my baby brother? Yeah. This is a chain-smoking oc
casion. ” He spoke the words casually, almost callously, but I saw the crushing agony in his eyes as he looked away, stared at the glowing orange cherry of his cigarette.

  “Can I try?”

  He glanced at me, an eyebrow lifted, silently asking if I was sure. He held the white tube toward me, the bottom pinched between two thick fingers. He had grease under his finger nails, and the tips of his fingers were callused, the mark of a guitar player.

  I took the cigarette and tentatively put it to my lips, held it there for a moment, then sucked in. I tasted harsh air, something like mint, then I inhaled. My lungs burned and protested, and I blew it out, coughing. Colton laughed, a low chuckle.

  I got so dizzy I almost fell over. I put a palm to the tree trunk to balance myself. Colton wrapped a huge hand around my elbow.

  “First drag’ll make you dizzy. Even now, if it’s been awhile I’ll get dizzy. ” He took the cigarette back and drew on it, then blew it out of his nostrils. “Just don’t get addicted, okay? I don’t need that shit, knowing I got you hooked on smoking. It’s a nasty habit. I should quit. ” He puffed again, putting the lie to his words.

  He was slumped back against the tree, hunched over, as if the weight of grief was too much to stand up under. I knew the feeling. I took the cigarette from his fingers, ignoring the strange, unwelcome spark of feeling that shot up my arm when my fingers touched his.

  I took a drag, tasted the smoke, blew it out, coughed again, but less this time. I felt the airiness in my head spread. I liked the feeling. I took another, then handed it back. I saw my mother standing in the door I’d left through, watching.

  Colton followed my gaze. “Shit. Guess it’s time to go. ”

  “Can I ride with you?”

  He paused in the act of pushing away from the tree. He stood over a foot taller than me, his shoulders like a football player’s pads, arms corded thick. He was huge, I realized. Kyle had been lean and toned. Colton was…something else. Obviously powerful. Hard. Primal.

  “Ride with me?” He seemed puzzled by the request.

  “To the cemetery. They’ll…want to talk. Ask me questions. I can’t…I just can’t. ”

  He took one last drag then pinched the cherry off with his fingers and stepped on it, stuffed the butt in his pocket. “Sure. Come on. ”

  I followed him to a Ford F-250 with huge tires and diesel exhaust pipes behind the cab. It was splattered with mud and had a lockbox in the bed. He walked next to me, not touching me, just there. I heard my mom’s voice in the distance, but ignored her. I couldn’t handle the questions I knew she’d have.

  Colton opened the passenger door, offered me his hand and lifted me up. Again, I felt an awful, powerful lightning bolt of energy zap through me at his touch. Guilt assailed me.

  I passed close to him as I stepped up into the cab. He smelled of cigarettes and cologne and something indefinable. I saw him swallow hard and look away, letting go of my hand as soon as possible. He wiped his palm on his pants leg, as if to erase the memory of a thrill from touch.

  He was in the cab next to me a moment later, twisting the key to start the truck with a throaty rumble. The leather seats vibrated under my thighs, not unpleasantly. I slipped out of his coat and set it on the seat between us. As the truck started, music blared from the speakers, male and female voices raised in haunting harmony: “…if I die before I wake…I know my soul the Lord won’t take…I’m a dead man walking…I’m a dead man walking…”

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  Something snapped in my chest and I had to clench my teeth until my jaw hurt to keep from crumbling. “What—who is this?” I asked, the words raw and rasped.

  “The Civil Wars. The song is called ‘Barton Hollow. ’”

  “It’s amazing. ”

  “You’ve heard thirty seconds. ”

  I shrugged. “It…speaks to me. ”

  He touched something on the dashboard and the song started from the beginning. I listened, rapt. The next song grabbed me too, and Colton drove, unspeaking, letting me listen. The burgeoning pressure in my chest lessened with the power of the music.

  All the while, I felt Colton’s presence in the truck like a hot spike of awareness. He filled the four door cab until I felt almost claustrophobic. Almost. Except…his presence was—somehow—a balm on the open wound of my heart.

  This fact alone was enough to cause a river of guilt. I shouldn’t feel this. Shouldn’t feel anything. There should be no balm, no comfort.

  I didn’t deserve it.

  There was an awning set up over the open grave, two rows of chairs. The rain had turned cold. I shivered as I stepped down out of the cab, and Colton was there again, opening the door and extending his hand.

  He seemed too rough, too big, too hard around the edges to be such a gentleman. He was a contradiction. Grease under his fingernails. Hand hard and callused, like gritty concrete under my soft palm as I stepped down from the cab.

  His eyes skittered over mine, held on me for a brief moment, wavered as if searching, as if memorizing. His adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. His eyes narrowed and he licked his lips, releasing my hand after holding it for a beat too long.

  He sucked in a deep breath, stuck his hand in his pants pocket and jingled his keys. “Let’s do this,” he said on a sigh.

  I followed him. I didn’t want to do this. I wanted to run away. I didn’t want to watch the wooden box containing the corpse of my first love lowered into the ground. I nearly turned and ran.

  Then Colton stopped, startling blue eyes piercing me. He just nodded, a brief dip of his chin, but it was enough to put one of my feet in front of the other, carrying me to the grave. He knew my thoughts, it seemed. He knew I wanted to run. But he couldn’t know that, shouldn’t know that. He didn’t, couldn’t know me. I’d met him twice in my life. He was Kyle’s older brother, nothing more.

  I felt my mother’s eyes on me as I stopped at the dark cherrywood casket. I put my fingers to my lips to keep in the sounds, the emotions. I felt my father’s eyes on me. I felt Mr. and Mrs. Calloway’s eyes on me. Everyone’s eyes on me. I put my hand to the cold wood, since that seemed to be expected of me. I wanted nothing more than to climb into the box with him and quit breathing, find him in whatever came after life.

  I stumbled as I turned, high heel catching in the grass. Colton’s hand shot out and steadied me, yet again. Electric touch, ignored. He let go immediately, and I sat down. A preacher or minister in a black suit with a black shirt and the little white thing at his collar stood over the grave, intoning Bible verses and rote words of supposed comfort.

  I couldn’t breathe. I was choking on the bottled-up emotion. I had a flower in my hand somehow, and the casket was being lowered into the awful black chasm. I stood over the hole and tossed in the flower, as expected.

  “I’m sorry,” I whispered. No one heard, but it wasn’t for anyone but Kyle anyway. “Goodbye, Kyle. I love you. ”

  I turned, then, and ran. Kicked off the heels and ran barefoot through the grass, across the gravel parking lot, ignoring the voices calling me.

  The cemetery was only a few miles away from my parent’s house, from home, from Kyle’s house. I followed the dirt road, ignoring the stabbing pain when rocks dug into my feet. I welcomed the pain, the physical pain. I just ran. Ran. Off-balance with one arm in a cast. Each step jostled my broken arm, adding to my pain. I turned on the correct street and ran some more. I heard a car pull up next to me, heard my father’s voice pleading with me. Rain pelted on my head, still the rain, always the rain, nonstop rain since the day he died. I ignored my dad, shook my head, wet hair slapping my chin. I think I was crying, but the rain mingled with the hot salt.

  Another car, another voice, ignored. Run, run, running. Dress wet against my skin, clinging, flapping against my thighs. Feet aching, burning, stabbing. Arm excruciating, jolted with every step. Then footsteps taking space-eating strides, rhyth
mic, unhurried, the pace of a runner. I knew who it would be. He didn’t try to keep up, and I tried to pretend, just for a moment, that it was Kyle behind me, letting me run ahead so he could stare at my ass. That thought, that image, that memory of Kyle’s easy lope behind me had me struggling for breath, fighting against the swell of tears.

  I ran harder, and his stride behind me increased. I shook my head, hair slapping into my mouth, wet. After a few more strides, he was next to me, shirt wet and transparent, tie gone, buttons open to mid-chest. He kept pace with me easily. He didn’t speak, didn’t even look at me. Just ran next to me. Our breathing began to sync, huffing in two steps, huffing out two steps, a too-familiar rhythm.

  A mile from home, I stepped on a large rock in the road and twisted my ankle, flying forward. Before I could hit the ground, I was in Colton’s arms. He slowed to a walk with me in a fireman’s carry, one arm beneath my knees, the other around my shoulders. He was breathing hard, and there was a hitch in his step.

  “I can walk,” I said.

  Colton stopped and let me down. As soon as I put weight on my ankle, however, it gave out and I had to hop to stay upright.

  “Let me carry you,” Colton said.

  “No. ” I gripped his bicep in my hand, gritting my teeth and taking a step. It hurt, but I could do it.

  I would not be carried. There would be too many questions if I showed up at home in Colton’s arms. There would already be a barrage, I knew.

  The real reason, though, was because it had felt too right, nestled in his arms. Too comforting. Too natural. Too much like home.

  Guilt assailed me once more, and I intentionally put too much weight on my twisted ankle, sending pain throbbing through my leg. The pain was good. It distracted me. Gave me a reason to whimper past clenched teeth and brush away the tear. I was crying from the pain in my ankle, and that would pass. I wouldn’t cry from the pain in my heart, because that wouldn’t fade. It only grew heavier and harder and sharper with every passing minute, hour, day.

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  I stumbled, and Colton’s hand steadied me. “At least lean on me, Nell,” he said. “Don’t be stubborn. ”

  I stopped, foot lifted slightly. Hesitating. Considering.

  “No. ” I shook his hand off, lowered my foot and took a natural step. No limping, no hobbling.

  It hurt so bad I couldn’t breathe, and that was good. It pushed away the guilt. Pushed away the hurt in my soul. Pushed away the waking nightmare, the knowledge that Kyle was gone forever. Gone. Dead. Lost.

  Killed, saving me.

  I took another step and let the agony wash through me. I ducked my head so my hair fell around my face, obscuring my vision to either side. I heard Colton’s step beside me, heard his breathing, smelled the acrid, faded scent of cigarette smoke and the fainter cologne and the ripe sweat of exertion. Man smell. Uniquely Colton, and entirely too comforting, all too familiar.

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