“And nothing fun,” he tells me. “I’m not there. I’m not with you.”
“I thought you said we have to start talking,” I emphasize. “That goes two ways you know. We can’t just discuss my addiction and not yours.”
Silence bleeds through the receiver for an excruciatingly long moment before he says, “I was talking to Ryke the other day…he asked me who Aaron Wells is.”
My Twizzler slips out of my hand. I feel like Lo is deflecting, and it’s kind of working considering Aaron Wells makes my stomach curdle. And I was planning on never telling Lo what happened at the Fizzle soda unveiling, especially while he’s in rehab. I didn’t want to give him a reason to turn to booze.
Lo says, “I asked him why he wanted to know. And he wouldn’t give me a straight answer—just said something about how he went to a family event with you. And I thought, why the f**k would she ever want to bring that douchebag to a party? And then I remembered your mother and how she used to set you up before we were dating.” He pauses. “Something happened, didn’t it? Aaron knows I’m in rehab. He probably decided now was a good time for payback, right? You’re defenseless while I’m basically trapped here.”
“You’re not trapped,” I say. I don’t want him to think of rehab as a prison. Not when it’s helping him.
He groans, and I picture him rubbing his eyes warily. “I want to be there with you,” he says. “I don’t want Ryke to be the one to protect you. That’s my job, and I plan to be a hell of a lot better at it than before...” He trails off, and I read the rest: before you almost got raped. Yeah, he was a little too consumed by alcohol to come to my rescue that night. Thankfully I escaped that, but it still hurts to think about. I’ve tried to avoid public restrooms since then, and I try not to be plagued by the fear of being assaulted. Sometimes it creeps in, and I sink into myself in large crowds, but I’ve always been a little recluse in that sense.
I wish I could reply back I didn’t need protection. But that would be an utter lie. Aaron was aggressive that night, and I did need some sort of reinforcement to help me. “Ryke didn’t protect me,” I say softly. I open my mouth to elaborate, but Lo has already jumped to conclusions.
“What?” His breath deepens. “If he f**king hurt you, I’m—”
“Lo,” I cut him off. “I just meant to say that Ryke wasn’t the one to help me…your father was.”
The silence buzzes through the receiver again.
I elaborate, “He saw Aaron giving me a hard time, and he threatened him. It worked. Aaron left me alone after that.”
The phone crackles.
Then I hear him exhale. “My father?”
Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned anything. It took a great deal of strength to walk away from someone he loves but has hurt him. And to be caught in the grayness of Jonathan Hale makes it difficult to cut him completely out. Even though that may be best for Loren right now.
“Yeah.” Right now, there’s a slim, hopeless chance he’ll open up about his father, and I kind of think he doesn’t even know how he feels about the man. I’d talk to him about it, but he’ll end the call before I even begin to prod. So I want to change the topic before he hangs up. “So what about rehab?” I ask. “You can’t keep dodging this conversation.”
I imagine him squeezing his eyes shut with that familiar agitation, and he groans again in annoyance. “You just put my head on a Tilt-a-Whirl, and you want to know about rehab?”
“Yes,” I say, not backing down. I have to push him.
He lets out a long breath. “I’m sober. I just thought it’d feel different being sober for this long.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was so miserable drunk, and I convinced myself that being sober would be the flip-side of being miserable. I guess, I thought sobriety would be ninety-nine percent knock-your-socks-off amazing. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice. I can think clearer sometimes and filter some bullshit that I’d normally have no problem saying. But it sucks too. It hurts more.”
He has to face the pain now. I’m going through something similar. All of the situations I’d drown with sex and a high are things I have to confront head-on. It’s difficult and makes the urges even harder to restrain.
“But I’m not going back to before. Not for anything or anyone…”
“Your father?” I ask, knowing that has to be the “anyone” he’s referring to. Jonathan Hale took away Lo’s trust fund, his inheritance, and everything that financially secured Lo’s future. All because Lo won’t return to college and live up to his impossible standards.
“Yeah. Him,” Lo mutters. “He’s my therapist’s favorite topic.”
Maybe I can ease into this… “Are you going to talk to Jonathan when you get back?”
“I don’t know anymore…” He pauses. “He’s one of my triggers to drink, but I didn’t need rehab to figure that out.”
My chest constricts. “Am I…” What if I’m a trigger. Oh God.
“No, Lil,” he tells me with a short laugh. “You’re the opposite. You’re my stability…my home.”
I inhale, his words pricking my eyes a little. He’s always felt like home to me too. I clear my throat, not wanting to become all sappy over the phone. I only have so long to hear his voice. And then I’ll be alone again. “When you get back, what are you going to do?” He won’t go to college, and he’ll need to earn money now. Ryke and I both offered to help with his finances, but Lo’s pride squashed the idea.
“I’m not sure. I’ll worry about it later,” Lo says softly. I wish I could hold him or hug him. Anything. He sounds a little lost, but what twenty-something isn’t? The only difference between Lo and me at this point is that I’m still in college. But we’re in the same place really. I’m no closer to knowing what I want to do with the rest of my life. I wish my future bachelor’s degree could magically choose a career path that’s perfect for me. If four years of college bought me that, I’d be sold.
“Can we steer the conversation away from me now?” Lo asks. “How have you been holding up?”
“I’m a little frustrated,” I mutter. “Sexually and mentally.”
“Mentally?” he asks, worried. “Are you okay?”
“Yeahyeahyeah,” I say quickly. “It’s just that the therapy sessions drain me. I want to know why I’m addicted to sex so badly. Dr. Banning says the answer might not be so clear. And I just worry that when I find it…I won’t like it.”
His breath grows heavy over the line, and his words come out as a whisper. “Do you think it’s me?”
It feels like a stab to the chest. I glance down at the Twizzler braid on my lap. “It’s me, Lo,” I choke. “I can’t blame anyone else for my problems. I just have to figure out how it started.”
“When we were nine, we did some things,” he says quietly. “Do you remember that?”
“Lots of little kids do stupid stuff,” I defend, thinking about what Dr. Banning told me. Experimenting, she called it.
“It was wrong,” he tells me with added confidence. I imagine him running a shaking hand through his light brown hair. His voice remains firm and determined. “I was older than you.”
“By nine months.” He’s being ridiculous.
“It doesn’t matter, Lil,” he snaps. “I’ve been thinking a lot in this place, and I want to tell you that I’m sorry. For everything that I’ve ever done to hurt you—”
“You haven’t hurt me,” I interject. “You haven’t.”
“Lily,” he says, very softly. “You remember the night before we split up and I came here? The day before Christmas Eve?”
“The Charity Gala,” I say. The night where he broke his short sobriety by chugging mini-bottles of tequila from a hotel room.
“I hurt you,” he says. “I had sex with you so you’d stop focusing on my alcohol addiction…so you’d stop looking at me like I was unraveling. You were crying hysterically, and I f**ked you. And afterwards, I was a complete dick about it. What do you call that?”
“You didn’t…” rape me, I think, knowing that’s what’s plaguing his mind. He didn’t. “I wanted it, Lo. Please, don’t think that.” God, we’re so messed up. I listen for his reply, but I only hear silence. “Lo?”
“Yeah,” he clears his throat. “I’m sorry, Lil. For that night, for when we were nine. I’m so sorry.”
“You don’t have to take all the blame. I was there too when we were younger, you know. I touched you. Maybe I f**ked you up.”
He laughs now, and it makes me smile. “I can assure you that I’m f**ked up, but it’s not because of you.”
“Likewise.” At least, I hope so.
He suddenly lets out a long groan. “God, I just want to kiss you.”
I grin. “Welcome to my world. I think I’ve imagined making out with you about five billion times since you’ve been gone.”
“And how many times have you imagined my c*ck in your mouth?”
My eyes widen, and I lose breath, even though he says it so blasé.
“What about my c*ck in your ass?” I hear the smile behind the words.
Oh my God. I lick my dry lips and squirm a little on the bed. The spot between my legs begins to pulse with his words.
“In your p**sy?”
“Lo,” I croak. Are we having phone sex right now? I eye the door. Should I go lock it?
“Have you been good?” Lo asks. “Did you touch yourself at all?”
“No, I’ve waited.”
“I’m proud of you,” Lo tells me. And I immediately feel a sense of accomplishment wash over me. “You’ve earned something then.”
We are having phone sex! Yes. I crawl out of my canopy, struggling with the net for two seconds too long, and then jump off the bed with the phone still braced in my hand. I race to lock the door. Pausing in the middle of the room, I look to my closet. “Do I need…” How does this even work?
“Need what?” he asks in confusion. Great, he can’t read my mind. What I’d give to be dating Charles Xavier— though the X-Men: First Class edition where he’s played by James McAvoy. Bald doesn’t do it for me.
“Never mind,” I mutter.
“Need what, Lily?” Lo prods again, his voice serious. I don’t answer right away, trying to gain the nerve to say the words. “Am I going to have to guess? It better not be lube. You’ve never had a problem getting wet around me.”
“Stop talking,” I tell him. “You’re making this hard.”
“You’re making me hard.”