Anti stepbrother, p.6
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       Anti-Stepbrother, p.6
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           Tijan

  My phone buzzed again, breaking through the spell. A cold dose of reality poured over me as I read the next words: We should talk about Maggie.

  Yes. We should. I groaned internally. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but I typed back, already knowing I’d push off the ice cream social thing because I was a weak dumbass when it came to Kevin. When and where?

  I didn’t have to wait long. His text buzzed right back: Now? We can meet at Brown Building. Front steps.

  This was all sorts of wrong. Why didn’t he just come to my dorm? He could see my room, maybe help me meet anyone who didn’t go to get ice cream? I could have pressed the issue, but I didn’t. Instead of joining the crowd gathering outside Avery’s room, I bypassed them and went down the stairs.

  Outside I walked toward the area where I thought Brown Building was located. I’d registered for classes the day before and gotten my books at the bookstore, but I’d only wandered around campus a few times. I knew it was broken up into three large quad sections with the student center/cafeteria in the middle of it all. One of my classes was in Brown Building, so I needed to find where it was anyway. After cutting through the student center—and walking right past the ice cream shop—I pushed open the doors leading to the last quad area. I hadn’t explored that section yet, so I was surprised to find that it was quiet. And dark. There were more lights posted in the other parts of campus. I felt like I’d stepped into a closed sanctuary.

  Two sidewalks led from the student center, breaking into separate directions. Trees blocked my view, but based on where I remembered seeing Brown on the map, I headed right. Brown was the third building down, and the sidewalk circled around the building, taking me past a side door.

  Kevin wasn’t at the side door.

  I stayed on the sidewalk and continued around the building, finding a large set of stone steps leading up to another door. They overlooked a small pond, and I went to sit down. I could see why Kevin chose this spot. It was private, and with the pond and its fountain, it was almost tranquil. I didn’t even feel like I was on a college campus, or that a bunch of freshmen were a few buildings away.

  “Hey.”

  I looked up. A dark silhouette came around from the opposite way. Kevin had his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched forward.

  “Hey,” I said back.

  He moved closer, stepping into the single light positioned above me. A dagger sliced my heart. I could see the apology on his face, and I gritted my teeth. I didn’t want to hear it. He’d hurt me, yes, but I didn’t need him to pour salt on the wound.

  I had a feeling I had no say over that.

  “Look,” he started. He didn’t come any closer. He cleared his throat. “Uh…so this is weird.”

  Maybe it was because I saw him with Maggie, or because I found out minutes later she had a boyfriend, or because he never checked on me after I lied for him. Or maybe it was because I hadn’t seen him at all since our ridiculous family dinner, but whatever the reason, as I waited for him to continue, the image I had of him in high school was stripped away.

  That made me feel cold and vulnerable, like he was a stranger.

  I could remember every time we’d talked during that year we lived together, but I couldn’t remember a joke, a hug, or anything affectionate. It was always me gazing at him, and feeling close, feeling warm because of my own daydreams.

  That’d been it. He’d been present, but he’d been quiet unless with a girlfriend. He would laugh then, and I’d always heard that as a sound of relief—like he could only relax if a girl was with him.

  Why had I cared so much then? What was I missing? I didn’t think I was completely delusional…or was I?

  Kevin started to say something, but I interrupted. “Was I a mistake?”

  “What?” He’d lifted a hand to scratch behind his ear. A dumbstruck look came over him, and his hand moved slowly back to his side. “What?”

  “Me. That night we were together. I was a mistake.” My chest burned. “Wasn’t I?”

  He blinked rapidly, then coughed to clear his throat. “Well…um…”

  That was my answer. Those two stupid words were my answer.

  The burning intensified, and I jerked, scooting away until my back hit the step behind me.

  A week ago, I would still have been waiting for him to give me an answer. Things were different now. The unspoken told the truth, and I could hear that. I’d just been not listening for two entire years. Two fucking years.

  I hung my head. “I’m so stupid.”

  “What?”

  “I’m so stupid.”

  “Wait.” He started forward, his hand outstretched, but he paused.

  I could see the thoughts crossing his face. What could he say? Nothing. That was the thing. If I was a mistake, he couldn’t tell me. I might tell his secret then, and if I wasn’t a mistake, it was too late. He was with someone else now. Right? It was one of those two choices.

  Why was I trying to rationalize this for him?

  After a moment he sighed and slid his hands into his front pockets. “I really love Maggie.”

  There it was. That was his reason for everything. I’d just go with it, for now. “Okay.”

  He stepped toward me. His voice grew clearer. “I know you’ve been here all week, and you’ve been alone. I would’ve called earlier or come to see you, but I needed to make sure Maggie was okay. You know what I mean?”

  I didn’t, but my head bobbed up and down anyway.

  “You understand?”

  Not in the slightest, but again, I was nodding. Apparently I still had some wallflower in me.

  “Good.” He sounded so relieved. “I was kinda worried. Your floor advisor has history with Maggie. I didn’t know—”

  “Avery told me she’s friends with Maggie.”

  He went still. “Oh. So you’ve talked about me and Maggie with Avery?”

  “She knows our parents are married.”

  “Oh.” He sounded surprised now. “You told her about me.”

  “She knew, but—” My mouth was suddenly dry, and my palms were sweaty. I rubbed them together. “Why wouldn’t I?” What is going on here? “Am I not supposed to tell people?”

  “About you and me?” he asked.

  I leaned forward. Did he mean…

  He continued, pointing between us, “That we’re stepsiblings, right? Everyone has to know my goddamn business. I don’t really know why you’re talking about me at all.” His hands went back into his pockets. He rocked back on his heels. “Besides, we were more housemates, really. That was it.”

  I knew this, but still felt slapped in the face. “Housemates.”

  “Yeah. I mean, yeah.” He frowned, acting like he was so confused. “I didn’t even know you before our parents got married. And that one year we lived together, I was barely around, and you were always in your bedroom. We never got close. Then last year I was hardly home. Like, ever.”

  Except for that one night, I added silently. When you went out to a graduation party with my friends and me. When you got drunk with me. When we went home and kissed, and did more than I want to think about right now. You were hardly home, except for that one night.

  I looked down. “I see.”

  He coughed again, his feet shuffling on the sidewalk. “And I really love Maggie. I really do, but you see, she’s with that Marcus guy for now, and Marcus comes from a big-name family around here. His dad is a legacy legend in the fraternity, and even though Marcus isn’t a member, his brother Caden is one of my brothers. It’s just sticky. If they ever find out what you really saw that night—”

  I started laughing. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe it was wrong, but it began to bubble up inside me, and I couldn’t stop. The joke was on me, but it was on him, too. He didn’t think people knew. Everyone knew!

  “What?”

  I shook my head, still laughing. My shoulders started to shake. “Nothing. It’s—” More laughter. “Nothing. I’m sorry.”

/>   But I couldn’t stop, and he glared at me, anger evident in his eyes.

  After a few more beats, I was able to calm myself. “Is this what you did in high school? Do you really think you’re not going to get caught? You don’t realize everyone already knows?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You date a girl, then at the five-month mark, you get bored. You start looking around for a new girl. Then you date both girls, thinking the girlfriend won’t know, but she always does. It’s always a nasty break-up. Everyone knew about it at school—”

  “They did?”

  “Yeah. And I’m sure you thought you were in love with them too, just like Maggie now. But Kevin, are you serious? People know. You brought her to the restaurant.”

  “I don’t have another girlfriend now. And this town is big enough. I didn’t think it’d matter if she came to dinner or not.”

  “Whatever. But she’s got a boyfriend. He went to your frat house the other night, looking for her. He knew she would be with you. Your fraternity brothers and I are the only reasons you didn’t get caught. How much longer do you think this will last? I mean, be realistic.”

  He scratched his head again and shrugged. “I don’t know. We’re going to be more careful.”

  I thought I’d take a stab at this. “You’re going to be together in her room and not yours?”

  I thought he’d laugh and give me a more detailed plan of action. I thought he’d say, Oh, no, and proceed from there. He didn’t.

  There was silence instead, and I had a second realization for this evening. The stepbrother I had loved, or thought I’d loved, for so long was a moron. There was no other way to explain his stupidity.

  “Are you serious?” I asked. “That’s your plan? Instead of hanging out in your room, where Marcus actually wouldn’t have a reason to drop by, you’re going to hang out in her room, where he does have a reason to go. Because, you know, it’s his girlfriend’s room.”

  “No.” Kevin shook his head, taking another step backward. “I mean, of course that’s not our plan. But Caden’s at my place. He lives there too.”

  I snored. “You think Caden’s going to hang out in your room?”

  Kevin didn’t reply right away. He seemed to mull things over before he asked, “What do you mean by that?”

  I wanted to smack myself in the forehead. “He covered for you that night. He didn’t let Marcus inside.”

  “He didn’t know—”

  I cut in. “He knew. Trust me, he knew.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I—”

  No. I wasn’t doing this. I wasn’t going to explain that Caden had caught me, or questioned me, or given me a ride home from Marcus’ party. That was none of Kevin’s business, and even though it stung to admit it, he and Maggie weren’t my business either—except for the fact that I had COVERED FOR HIM! Okay. Breathe, Summer. Breathe. Calm down.

  I counted down from ten to one, then tuned him out. If he said something during my calming time, it fell on deaf ears.

  He was driving me nuts.

  My feelings were still there, buried deep in my chest, but my God, I was learning how exasperating he could be at the same time. I couldn’t wait until those feelings were gone. I had a feeling I’d be looking at life in a new way.

  Deep breath. Calming thoughts. Think Zen. Buddha. Boring-ass music. Yoga. Anything to lower your heart rate.

  “You okay?”

  “What?” I refocused and saw he was watching my hands. I looked down. I’d been fanning myself. “Oh. Yeah. I’m fine.”

  He glanced behind him. “You know, it’s weird talking to you about this.”

  “You don’t say.” No sarcasm there. Not one bit.

  He nodded. “Listen, in case you run into Maggie or Marcus again, he’s not a bad guy. I don’t want you to think that, because he and his brother are popular on campus.” He lifted a shoulder. “Not that I’m not, but I’m not in their league. You don’t have to hate the guy or anything. I know you’re in my camp.”

  I stifled a groan.

  He continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “You know what I mean.” He peered at me, blinking a few times. “You’re going into sports medicine?”

  My head moved back an inch. “You know my major?” Or my soon-to-be/I was hoping to declare major.

  I lifted a hand to my chest. I’d talked to him about that graduation night. I hadn’t realized he’d actually been listening. He’d seemed focused on removing my shirt.

  “My mom told me.”

  “Oh.”

  There was that then.

  “Marcus is sports medicine too. You’re probably going to see him.”

  That clicked.

  He smiled for the first time tonight. “I don’t want to make things awkward for you.”

  Awkward. For me. “How thoughtful of you.”

  His smile grew, and he finally crossed to where I sat on the steps.

  “Come on.” He motioned for me to stand. “Let’s hug it out.”

  He held me to his chest, murmuring in my ear, “You know, it is nice to have you here.”

  My throat burned again. He said that like it had just occurred to him.

  “Thank you.”

  He gave me one more squeeze before he stepped back, offering a crooked grin as he raked a hand through his hair. “I’m glad we had this talk. We should meet up for dinner every now and then. That might be fun.”

  Dinner. Every now and then. That might be fun.

  I’d come to college thinking I’d be with him, and turned out his plan was that we “should meet up for dinner every now and then.”

  This entire talk felt like one giant punch to my face.

  “I owe you an apology. Again.”

  I heard this as two feet stopped next to me. A large textbook and notebook dropped onto the grass with a muted thud, and I glanced up in time to see a pair of bare legs bend.

  I was attempting to study on the east quad’s lawn between two of my classes. It had been a week since school started, and everything was going great. Well, almost everything. My classes were easy so far, but I hadn’t really clicked with anyone I’d met yet. A few of my floormates had ordered pizza and binge-watched Dirty Dancing, The Breakfast Club, and Pitch Perfect the other night. I went. I’d enjoyed a slice of cheese pizza, and I’d been humming “Cups” nonstop ever since, but mostly it had all been…dull.

  I was dull.

  I didn’t know what my problem with that was. Clarissa and I had been dull in high school. May hadn’t been, but we were, and we were okay with it. But now… The girls on my floor were nice. They were steady, tame. Okay, they were boring. And I should’ve loved hanging out with them. I should’ve←the two operative words.

  Instead I almost loathed it.

  I’d been leaving during the Barden Bellas’ grand finale when I’d heard laughter coming from the bathroom. Avery had come out, and she wasn’t alone. Shell, Claudia, and two others whose names I still didn’t remember had trailed behind. They all saw me. Avery had waved, giving me a friendly smile, and Shell and one of the other girls did as well. Claudia didn’t. She hadn’t flipped me off or anything; she just didn’t care. Her face had been a mask, and I’d stared a bit longer at her than necessary. Avery noticed, and she’d looked between us as they all headed out. I recognized the backpacks and pre-loaded water bottles, and I guessed they were going to another party. Maybe even another one Caden’s brother was throwing.

  They’d left, and I’d turned to go to my room. I’d been planning on going to bed, but I couldn’t deny the feeling inside of me.

 
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