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Because of Elle
I had come to think of this place as mine. The trees, which filtered out the sunlight and protected from the rain, each had their own special spot in my mind. The smell of the grass was one that often brought a sense of home to me. I knew where every rock was, what every stick came from. These were my woods, a comforting place where I could escape to and just stare at the ground, contemplating.
I looked up abruptly, shaken and scared by the sounds of unwelcome feet crunching the leaves below them. Carefully, I ducked behind the nearest tree, pressing myself against its mossy trunk, trying to not be seen. My heart beat a thousand times faster than it was supposed to as the footsteps neared me. I squeezed my eyes shut — maybe, just maybe, if I couldn't see them, then they couldn't see me. Foolishness washed over me; I'd learned that lesson back in kindergarten. I opened my eyes again. My toes were numb, my fingers were tingling. The footsteps stopped. With a racing pulse and shaking hands, I cautiously peeked around the trunk. I inhaled sharply, and quickly clamped my hand over my mouth, scolding myself for making noise. I slipped behind the trunk again, sinking to the ground. I tried to erase the image. I shook my head, bit my lip, shut my eyes, but it didn't disappear. It was burned into my memory, the sight of a shirtless boy, with a weathered, tan torso that was streaked with thin, white scars. His hair was wild and long, jet-black and matted. His jeans were ripped and torn, and his shoes were falling apart. And his eyes, how they stared at me, hollow and haunted, almost as if they knew me, but like they were too afraid of anything — of everything — to say something. Tears were starting to well up in my own eyes; he was such a disturbing sight, unlike anybody I had ever seen before. Something wasn’t right about him. He'd seen horrors and felt emotions beyond any scope of my imagination, sheltered as I was. This stranger was not sheltered, I could tell. I pulled my legs to my chest, wrapping my arms around them, and rocked back and forth, holding my breath, waiting for this stranger — this beautiful, haunted stranger — to leave.
This person was calling out my name. I struggled to conceal myself even more. They called out to me again. My stomach twisted with realization, as my heart flip-flopped with recognition. Once more, they said my name. I felt a single tear run down my hot cheek. I bit my lip for a moment. “Jason,” I whispered at last.
I could hear him moving towards me. My first instinct was to recoil, even to run away, but I resisted. This was Jason, the person who had been there, for everything, the one who had given me hugs and stolen my cookies, the guy who had made Elle a better sister. The thought of her sent shock waves coursing through my body. I hunched over, my shoulders shaking and heaving. My dry sobs became loud, howling cries. My whole body was trembling violently, heaving with each tumultuous sob. I couldn’t control myself.
I didn’t feel him put his arm around me. I didn’t realize that he pulled me into him. I didn’t notice that he was stroking me. All I knew was that suddenly, I was calm. I was still crying, but they were more graceful and ladylike. I wasn’t quaking. It didn’t hurt to breathe. Never before had I ever been able to quiet down so easily. I had to cry through it all, feel every emotion, and then lay there, limp and practically lifeless, for hours, before any sort of sense could be put back into me. And yet, here I was, in the arms of my dead sister’s boyfriend — or ex, if that’s what he must be called — merely whimpering, just moments later. I felt his lips on my hair, the lightest of kisses, the most platonic of all signs of affection, but the tingle lingered. I let my eyes slide shut.
This wasn’t the Jason I had known, the one who I had loved as I would love a brother. That Jason was plastic, so transparent that I could read him with my eyes closed. This Jason was real, troubled and haunted and grieving and full. He had depth to him; now there was actually stuff behind the muscle.
I let him take my hand in his, let his fingers rub my palm. Once more, I opened my eyes. They were drawn towards his arm, attracted to the thin scars. I squinted. Those were fresh scars, newly white, some still a reddish purple. I took my free hand and carefully traced them, studying the jagged straightness of them. He followed my fingers.
It seemed to be all we could say, each other’s names. I could feel the tears returning, but this time they weren’t for my sister. They were for what she left behind, for the boy with his scarred arms behind me, who had hurt himself so badly, so intentionally, yet so unintentionally at the same time. They were for the disgust that was pulsing through me, disgust at myself for getting attached so quickly to someone she had loved and cherished; it was like I was forgetting all about her. They were tears for all the tears I had wept before, and all the tears that were to come.
“You’re shivering,” he observed quietly. The words sounded almost foreign after such a long silence.
“I’m okay,” I told him. It was as if I wanted it to be true, as if I wanted to actually be okay. I knew I never would, though, never could. When Elle left, she’d taken a part of me with her, a part I’d never known I had, a part that could never return.
He didn’t say anything. I thought that the quiet would be welcomed again, almost easy, but it wasn’t. Now that we’d started, it was like we were supposed to keep going, keep talking. I couldn’t tell if Jason felt the same way, so I kept my mouth shut, leaning into him just a little more, trying to escape the awkwardness that had settled over us.
“Are we okay?” he asked. His tone was tense, almost pursed. It was hard to tell if I was supposed to answer it or not. Even if I tried, I wouldn’t know what to say. I could feel that he knew this. I let him keep talking. “Is this okay?” he clarified. “With you, I mean?”
My stomach twisted. “I think so.”
I bit my lower lip for the slightest of seconds. “You’re different.”
“I know,” he replied softly. “I don’t think there was any way I could have stayed the same. Too much matters now. Stuff that didn’t matter before.”
“Like what?” I asked. I was prodding. I shouldn’t have been prodding, but I couldn’t help myself. There was so much about Jason that I’d overlooked before, or that had just shown up, so much that I wanted to know.
“Like nature,” he said. “And people. And family.”
“You quit football…” It wasn’t an accusation, or a question. It was a comment, an observation. I’d heard the rumors around school, the anger. It was supposed to be a promising season, a Cinderella story, as the star player came back from a tragedy and carried the school to victory. And then, Jason just… hadn’t shown up. He wouldn’t talk about it. Sometimes he didn’t even come to school.
“I don’t need to spend all my time there,” he explained. “Or at school.”
My eyes widened. “You’ve been ditching?”
“I’ve been taking time,” he corrected. “That’s what it’s called.”
“I’ve been coming here, mostly,” he said. “Hiking. Camping.”
“By myself.” He laughed, a small laugh, barely a chuckle. “That’s why I look so bad. I stopped caring about my hair, my clothes, anything like that. Just me and the outdoors, that’s all I thought I needed.”
I twisted out of his arms. I wasn’t recoiling, I wasn’t getting shy. I wanted to face him. I kept my hand in his. “What do you mean, you thought?”
“I’ve missed you.”
He leaned in. I didn’t move. He kept coming. I felt his lips touch mine. They were sweet, kind and gentle, and tasted like mint. I kissed him back, lightly and cautiously. He felt so fragile, so breakable. I didn’t want to do anything to test him. The kiss ended. He pulled away. His forehead touched mine.
My heart sank. I closed my eyes, letting the single tear fall. I had to tell him. My mouth formed the words, but they didn’t come out right away. I inhaled. Exhaled. It was time.
“I’m not Elle….”