I pull a woolen blanket tighter around my body, hiding beneath the soft fabric. I lose the courage to meet my sister’s gaze, and I listen to the familiar clap of her heels on the hardwood. The noise dies off as she steps onto the living room rug.
“Why didn’t you take her to the hospital?” Rose accuses.
“It’s complicated,” Connor says.
“It’s not complicated, Richard,” she spits. “My little sister was just attacked. She needs to be checked out.”
I take a small breath and risk a glance. Wearing a fur coat and chapped lips from the chill outside, her usual cold demeanor has been undeniably fractured with something more human. She cares. I’ve always known that, but others wouldn’t be so quick to see it.
“I’m okay,” I tell her, believing it too. “He didn’t get that far.”
To avoid a surge of emotion, she clenches her teeth hard, staring at me like I’ve suddenly come undone. But I don’t feel how she sees me. I’m okay. Honestly.
“I’m okay,” I repeat, just so she understands.
Rose holds up a finger to pause the talk. She turns to Connor. “Where’s Lo?” She clears her throat, choked.
I chime in, on an automatic setting. “He’s asleep.”
“Unconscious,” Connor corrects me.
Ryke stands. “Connor and I found Lily. Lo was…” drinking himself to sleep. He shakes his head, more upset than I thought possible. “I’ll go check on him.” Ryke pads off. And then there were three.
Rose looks back to Connor. “What was Lo doing?”
“Nothing,” I cut in. “Honestly, it’s fine. I’m okay. He’s okay. You guys don’t need to be here.” We can handle this. We’ve handled so much already. How is this any different?
Rose ignores me and waits for Connor to answer.
“He was drinking at the bar, getting wasted.”
Rose shakes her head almost immediately, disbelieving. “No. He doesn’t drink that much anymore, and he wouldn’t leave Lily. They’re always together.”
Connor frowns. “Are we talking about the same Loren Hale?”
I suck in a breath. “Stop,” I say. “Please! It’s fine.” But it’s like they’ve put my voice on mute. My head spins. Is this what free-falling feels like?
“I think I know him better than you,” Rose says. “He’s been dating my sister for three years.”
I crumple into the chair, seeing the wrecking ball smash apart my life before it happens.
“Then one of us has been fed wrong information. The Lo and Lily I know have been dating for two months.”
I crawl further in my blanket as their accusatory eyes pierce my body.
“Lily,” Rose says in a high-pitched voice. I’m scaring her. “Explain.”
Don’t cry. I swallow. “I’m sorry,” I start. “I’m sorry.” I bring my knees to my chest and press my forehead to them, hiding the tears that brew. I sense her condemnation, her hatred and spite at the world I’ve constructed for her to trust. A girl who has done nothing but love me unconditionally.
“Lily,” she breathes, her voice soft and near. She places a hand on my cheek, smoothing back my hair. I look up, and she kneels in front of me, not as betrayed as I imagined. “What’s going on?”
I want to paint a picture for her—a torrid, restless picture that spans across three long years, but spilling truths hurts more than constructing the lies. I focus on the facts. As an intellectual, maybe Rose will accept them.
I rest my chin on my kneecaps and stare past her. It’s easier. “Three years ago, Lo and I made a deal to pretend to be in a relationship. We wanted everyone to believe we’re good people, but we’re not.” I look away. “We started dating during the boat trip to the Bahamas.”
Rose tenses and picks her words carefully. “Lily, what do you mean about not being good people?”
I let out a short, crazed laugh. Why is it so funny? It’s not. None of this feels right. “We’re selfish and miserable.” I lean my head back. Being in a real relationship was supposed to fix everything. Our love should have mended all the pain and the hurt. Instead, we’re met with more complications, more consequences, more frowns and furrowed brows.
“So you closed everyone off?” she questions. “You built a fake relationship to hide away from the rest of us?” Her tone sharpens, beyond hurt, but when I look at her, I see fear and pain and sympathy. Sentiments I do not deserve. “It doesn’t make sense, Lily. You’re not a bad person, not enough to cast us away and play make-believe with your childhood friend.”
I cringe at everything. “You don’t know what I am.”
Rose glances over her shoulder. “Leave us,” she tells Connor. He doesn’t hesitate before disappearing down the hall. Swiftly, Rose spins back and clasps my hands in hers. I try to jerk away.
“Stop,” I say.
She holds tighter. “I am right here. I am not going anywhere.”
Tears well up. She should leave. I’ve tortured her enough.
“Look at me,” she pleads.
Hot tears scald, sliding slowly down my cheeks in fiery lines. I can’t meet her gaze.
“You cannot get rid of me, Lily. Nothing you do or say will make me leave. If you don’t tell me now, then I’ll hear of it in a year…”
“Stop,” I cry.
“…three years, five years, a decade. I’ll wait for you to tell me.” She’s crying—a girl who never cries, who squirms at the sight of tears and a wailing baby. “I love you. You’re my sister. That will never change.” She squeezes my hands. “Okay?”
Everything surfaces. I break into sobs, and she rushes into my arms, holding me tightly on the chair. I don’t say I’m sorry. I have spoken enough empty apologies to last a lifetime. This has to mean something.
I break from the embrace first, but we share the recliner, sitting close. She keeps her hand in mine, waiting while I form what feels impalpable. “I…I always thought something was wrong with me.” I swallow, my mouth cottony. “I try so hard to stop, but I can’t. And being with Lo, I thought it’d make everything better. I thought there would be no more bad nights, but it’s just a different kind of bad.”
Her breath goes. “Is it drugs?”
I let out another short laugh, tears dripping. “I wish; then it’d make more sense.” I inhale. “Don’t snicker, okay?”
“Lil,” she says. “I wouldn’t.”
“Lots of girls would.” I meet her eyes. “I started hav**g s*x when I was thirteen.” I tuck a piece of hair behind my ear, feeling small all of a sudden. “I’ve had more one-night stands than birthdays…” I open my mouth, ready for the next wave of truths but I stick to those.
“You think you’re slutty?” she wonders with a frown. “I wouldn’t judge you because you lost your virginity so young.” She lifts my chin with a finger. “One-night stands do not make you a slut. Sexuality is a part of human nature. No woman should be slandered for experiencing it.”
“It’s more than that, Rose.” Although, I could have used her empowerment years ago when I tossed and turned in bed, believing I should wither away before I touched myself, that masturb**ion was something for the boys. All the young girls said as much. They avoided the word, shunned those who so much as mentioned it, as though only guys can be the ones to touch girls’ aching flesh. Now it seems so ridiculous.
“Explain it to me,” she says.
“I’ve chosen sex over family functions hundreds of times. Even when I know it’s wrong, I keep doing it. Before I was with Lo, I used to convince myself that I’d stop all of the time. The next morning, I’d pop up another p*rn site. And I’d start all over again.” My arms tremble. “What does that sound like to you?”
Her eyes stay wide in thought. “You’re addicted.”
I wait for her to laugh or to convince me that I made it all up.
“Lily,” she says, very softly. “Do you know how this started—why you’re like this?” Her cheeks concave. I read her thoughts. Were you molested? Abused? Touched by some distant uncle of ours? I’ve sat and wondered for hours if I’ve repressed some traumatic event, but I always come up blank.
“Nothing happened to me. I just started. It made me feel good. And I couldn’t stop.” Isn’t that how most addictions begin?
“Oh Lily.” Tears build in her eyes again. “You were assaulted…does this play into your addiction somehow? Has this happened before?”
“No, no,” I say quickly, trying to bed her tears. My eyes already start burning again. “This is the first time, and it’s partly my fault. I…I sent the guy the wrong message. I’ve never been monogamous before, and this is the first instance that I’ve slipped up.”
Rose’s clutch tightens. “No,” she forces, jostling my hands in hers. “You are so wrong, Lily.”
“You don’t understand—”
“You’re right. I don’t understand your addiction, not yet. It’s very new to me, and I’m still trying to process it, but if you said or gave him any sort of impression to go away, then he should have listened.”
Ryke said the same thing. “I should feel upset about it,” I say. “This should change me in some monumental way, shouldn’t it?” But why do I feel so numb?
“I think you’re in shock,” Rose murmurs. “Do you need to see someone? I have a good therapist.” She scans the room for her purse.
“No, I don’t want to go to a shrink.”
“So you want to live like this? You don’t want to try and curb your addiction?”
I shrug. “I’m okay.” Or at least, that’s what I’ve convinced myself. “Lo is here. As long as I have him…”
Her eyes suddenly darken and I see the gears clicking in her head. She’s far too smart to let something as big as this go unnoticed. “You said you both were bad people. You’re helping each other keep secrets, aren’t you?” And then it hits her. “Oh my God, Lily. He never stopped drinking, did he?” When I don’t answer, she leans back in the chair, touching her lips. “Why hadn’t I noticed? He said he stopped partying because you didn’t like it. That was all a lie.”
“We’re okay,” I say for the millionth time.
“No, you’re not!” she shrieks. “You’re not okay. He got wasted at a bar and passed out while a guy assaulted you!”
My face cracks. “It’s okay,” I whisper. Tears flow full-force now. The waterworks pour while I stare at my hands. “This system works. I know you don’t see it, but it does.” I wipe my eyes but they keep coming. “And…and everyone’s better off. Lo and I, our addictions only affect each other. And we’ve learned to deal with it.”