Anti stepbrother, p.33
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.33
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           Tijan

  I had no idea. I shook my head.

  “We’re done, Phillip,” the cleaning guys called.

  “Good. Did you put condoms in there?”

  One cursed. “I will now.” And he was off.

  I was in shock. My knees knocked against each other as I turned to find myself face to face with the screen door guy.

  I saw the hostility and rasped out, “What’d you say to Caden?”

  He snorted, motioning behind me. “You can go, D. Thanks for getting that room done so quick.”

  “Hey.” Claudia took off after him. I heard her asking as they went up the stairs, “What is going on?”

  D nodded and nearly sprinted upstairs. I stepped forward, standing in Phillip’s doorway. He couldn’t shut the door in my face that way, and I reached out, bracing myself so I’d be ready if he tried.

  “What happened?”

  “Your stepbrother’s a piece of shit.”

  “I’m aware,” I repeated. “What happened?”

  I needed to know where Caden was. Badly. It was becoming imperative now.

  “Caden called a house ultimatum.”

  “Ultimatum? What does that mean?”

  “Him or your stepbrother.” He snorted. “Take a big guess who we picked. Your stepbro’s out. We sent him packing as soon as the vote went through.”

  “What?”

  Avery pointed to the bathroom. “We were just in there. How did all this happen so quickly?”

  Phillip shrugged. “Your boy decided. Called it in, and the house rallied real quick. That’s all I can say.”

  “Where is Caden? I know you know.”

  “You haven’t called him?”

  I looked at my phone. There was a text from Kevin. Call me! Got kicked out because of your boyfriend! A second one from Sheila. Did you talk to Kevin yet? Then nothing. It was blank. No calls. The empty screen was like a knife plunged into my chest.

  Caden had left me, like my mom did.

  No. I pushed that fear away, stomping it down.

  “Can I use your phone?” I didn’t know what was going on between Caden and me. He might not answer my call, but he would answer a call from one of his fraternity brothers.

  “Why?”

  “My phone’s not working.”

  He snorted. “Since now?”

  “Yes.” I dropped it and stomped a foot on it. Fine, you fucker. I held my hand out. “Let me make one call.”

  He swore, but handed me his phone. “Fine, but I’m going to cover my own ass if he doesn’t want to hear from you.”

  My hand closed around the phone like it was a life raft. “Deal.”

  I dialed Caden. His voice came on the line. “What’s up?”

  “Caden,” I started.

  Phillip yelled over my shoulder, “I’m sorry. She took my phone. I’m trying to get it back now.” He reached for it, but I swatted his hand away. I shot him a dark look, and he held up both of his hands.

  For good measure, I left. If I kept moving, the world wouldn’t crash down on me.

  I went up the stairs and into the hallway. “Hey. It’s me. I didn’t know if you would answer my call.” I made one more turn, went down the hallway where I’d first met Caden, and out the side door.

  “What are you doing on Phillip’s phone?”

  “Ah. Fuck.” A large truck blocked my way. More guys were unloading it, taking kegs to the backyard.

  “I think your house is having a party tonight.”

  “That’s why you’re calling?”

  “No.” The guys began taking the kegs past me to the backyard. I cupped my hand around the phone, lowering my voice. “I had to call. I broke down. I don’t know why—well, I think I do, but I know you saw that.”

  “I saw you in another guy’s arms. Yes.”

  I had to stop. Everything had to stop. This was it.

  Closing my eyes, I took a breath. I heard the door open behind me. I didn’t know who was there. I didn’t look. Whether it was Phillip coming for his phone or Avery, or even Claudia, I held up a hand, hoping they’d stop. I needed this time, right now.

  “I am in love with you.”

  There it was. It was out there. I couldn’t take it back. I kept going, “Kevin said stupid stuff, but that’s Kevin. He’s stupid, and for some reason I broke down.” I paused. He wasn’t saying anything. “I think maybe I should do this in person—”

  I considered that. Him standing in front of me, waiting, completely shut down as I poured out my heart. No. Now was good. I was going for now.

  “Kevin came into my life when my mom left. It happened so fast. She was gone, we were burying her, and then boom. I had a new family. And that family came with a stepbrother who was my high school crush. He was everyone’s high school crush. I don’t understand it. I can’t really explain it, but I had an aching hole in me, and I used stupid daydreams and fantasies to cover it up.” Still no response. “Have you ever done that? Used alcohol or cupcakes to fill in something you don’t want to feel? That’s what I did, but on an extreme level. I couldn’t handle losing my mom. What daughter can? Especially when she’s fifteen. My mom was gone, and then Kevin was there, and I let it all get out of hand. You have to know that whatever you saw in his bedroom earlier, my feelings for Kevin never had anything to do with him. It was all my mom.”

  The ache was still there. I felt it sizzling, burnishing my skin as I talked about it, but it wasn’t as bad. Some of it had lessened. There was still more to come. I knew that. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but Caden could help me.

  He just had to be in front of me. He had to be with me.

  I bent down, crouching on the balls of my feet, and I wrapped my arms around my knees. My eyes closed, and I whispered into the phone. “I clung to something that wasn’t real. But you, you’re real. You make me feel loved. You make me feel whole. You put me back together.”

  I paused. I had to. My lungs needed air, and after filling them up, I opened my mouth to start again.

  “It’s been you since you asked if something was wrong with me.” I smiled now, in the midst of all of it. “It’s been you since I hit you by accident in the hall at the frat house.” I hugged my legs even tighter, burrowing my forehead into my knees. “I love you, Caden. It’s been you this whole time. If anyone’s the fairy tale, it’s you.”

  I had nothing more. My chest hurt. My lungs hurt. Everything hurt because I’d poured out all I had to him.

  There was silence, complete and agonizing silence.

  Finally I heard from the phone, “Fairy tales end, Summer.”

  Wait—that voice was too close, too loud. I looked up, and he was there. He was gorgeous. His hair was messy, like he’d raked a hand through it, and it made me love him even more. His eyes were fixed right on me, cloudy with emotion.

  He was hurting. But why?

  I stood, dropped the phone, and went to him. “Caden—”

  He shook his head. “Stop.”

  I stopped a few feet from him. I wanted to go to him. My body wavered forward, leaning, but I held it back.

  “Fairy tales aren’t real.”

  My voice broke as I said, “But you are. You’re real life. You’re real.”

  I couldn’t lose him.

  I moved forward a step. I held my hands to my chest, wrapping them together. “Did anything I said make sense?”

  He tried to smile, but it faltered.

  I didn’t know if that was a good sign or not.

  “I know grief, Summer. Colton’s brain injury didn’t break just him. It broke my whole family. I know what it’s like to grieve and to want to put it off. The difference between you and me? I didn’t hide from it. I felt it. I experienced it, and you still haven’t.”

  I frowned. “What are you saying?”

  “I think you need time to mourn your mom.”

  “Caden.” I reached out for him.

  His gaze went to my hand, and for a moment, I thought he was going to take it. He didn’t. He let
it hang there.

  “Without me,” he said softly.

  “What?” Pain sliced through me. “What does that mean?”

  He shrugged and put his hands into his pockets. “I want to hold you, and kiss you, and tell you everything is going to be okay. I can’t believe Kevin did that to you. It killed me to see you in his arms, but I get it. I understand what happened now, and I believe you.” He paused, lowering his head a moment. “But I need to ask you a question.”

  “Okay.” I was suddenly nervous. My hands grew sweaty. “What is it?”

  “Promise you’ll answer honestly.”

  “Promise.” My mouth was dry.

  “When we were together, did you feel your grief for you mom?”

  “I…” The answer was no. I felt none of the pain. I only felt loved. How was that a bad thing, though?

  “You promised, Summer.”

  I had to answer. “I was only happy when I was with you.”

  He closed his eyes and stepped back. “Right there. See, I can’t be with you. You need time, Summer. You have to feel what you lost, and you have to mourn her. You used Kevin to cover that up, and I can’t be the next Band-Aid you use. I won’t do that to us. If you can’t mourn her when you’re with me, you have to do it without me.”

  He shook his head and began walking backwards, away from me.

  “I’m sorry, Summer. I can’t be with you now.”

  Two and a half months later.

  I hated February. It was fucking love month.

  “Hey.”

  Avery didn’t knock, but she hadn’t been knocking since she’d found me in bed, feeling like my insides had been yanked out and dumped in a pile on the floor. That was back in November. I stopped answering the door, and she started letting herself in. We were in a symbiotic relationship.

  I looked up from my laptop and watched as she grabbed a bag of chips, then plopped down on one of the beanbags. Those were also new, courtesy of Sheila, who felt bad because I’d been dumped. Kevin had told her, because everyone had told him. It was all over campus.

  I’d been dumped.

  Caden gave me the boot, but no one knew he did it for me. He was giving me time to process the loss of my mom, and I was. There’d been a couple more moments where I felt like I was breaking down, but I knew he was right. It hurt him too. Avery said he called and asked how I was doing every day. I just wished he would call me instead.

  To say my step had lost its bounce would be an understatement.

  I wasn’t even crawling.

  Most days I stayed in my room. That’s how I coped for the first two weeks. Then a phone call from my father reminded me I was in college. Classes were a requirement, apparently. So then my routine became dorm room, class, dorm room, class.

  Marcus was in my health class this semester. So was Shayla, my old physiology study partner. We had both been sitting there one day when he walked in.

  My lungs had ceased working for a moment. He’d looked so much like Caden in that moment, and I worried he’d leave. He’d stopped, stared at me, and then sat in the empty chair next to me.

  I could’ve cried. I was so happy.

  He’d patted my leg. “My brother thinks he’s doing the right thing. He’s an idiot.”

  Okay. I did start crying.

  Marcus pulled his hand away. “Don’t make this weird, okay? I don’t even like it when Avery cries.”

  I brushed my tears away quickly, and that night Caden had called.

  He’d seemed so quiet. “Marcus told me he’s in your class.”

  “He is.”

  “He said you’ve lost weight.”

  Marcus said the same about him. “Are you okay?”

  Caden laughed lightly. “I’m supposed to be the one asking you that.”

  I wasn’t okay. I didn’t want to say it, though. I wasn’t ready. I sighed, sinking down on my bed. “I’m trying to let her go, but it’s hard.”

  He’d been quiet a moment. “Could you do it if we were together?”

  I’d heard the yearning in his voice. I felt it too, but I had to be honest. We’d promised no lies. “I would be distracted by you.”

  Another beat of silence. Then, “Let me know when you’re ready. I’ll be here.”

  I nodded. I knew he couldn’t see that, but I couldn’t talk. My emotions were choking me, and when he hung up, I’d just curled on my side and hugged the pillow to me.

  It wasn’t Caden I’d been holding, not like I’d been dreaming. It was my mom, and in that moment she was there. She’d been holding me right back.

  I wanted him back, but it was time I took care of myself first.

  “What are we doing for supper tonight?” Avery asked, turning around in my desk chair and separating me from my memories.

  I grunted and tossed a package of ramen over my shoulder.

  She groaned. “Not again. Please. You need real food, Summer.”

  “Noodles are real food. They’re a relative to real pasta, which came from Italy and we know how kick-ass Italian food is. Boom. They’re gourmet badassness.”

  She tossed them to the corner. “They’re not, and I’m pulling my friendship card.”

  No way. She couldn’t.

  I rotated around in my chair to stare at her. “Not the friendship card.”

  “Totally the friendship card.”

  I pretended to gasp and shudder. Okay, I really did shudder. I’d never admit it, but the ramen wasn’t doing it for me either.

  She pulled out a plastic card from her purse and waved it in the air. “This states that when a friend needs an intervention, I can step in. You are long past an intervention.”

  “I do everything necessary to sustain my physical and biological needs. Case in point.” I pointed to my water and the fridge. “Liquids. Solids. I go to the bathroom. I sleep. I also uphold higher-function necessities, like class. I go to class… Now,” I added after a moment. “I go now. I had a short hiatus, but that doesn’t count. I go now. That counts.”

  Avery wrinkled her nose and scratched behind her ear. “Okay. We’ve been back from break for two weeks, and I’m calling it. We’re going to eat.”

  I opened my mouth, ready with an empty promise to order Chinese food, when she added, “But we don’t have to go on campus, not that he even eats there.” She softened her voice. “I was thinking we could go to a restaurant or something.”

  “What is this you speak of? A dwelling where they serve many varieties of solids?”

  Her lip twitched in a grin. “Yeah, that. You and me, we’re going to dress up, and we’re going to dine like queens.”

  “Can I wear a tiara?”

  “Without a doubt.” She winked at me as she got up and went to the door. “Thirty minutes, then we’re leaving.”

  “Avery?”

  “Yeah?”

 
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