Together We Heal by Chelsea M. Cameron

  “Do you want to talk to me about what happened? Shit, I wish I could be there with you,” I said, gripping the phone as if it could somehow take me to her.

  “I don’t know. I want to…” she trailed off and I waited. “Okay. Come over.”

  “Um, I don’t have a car,” I said, my face going red. I was glad she wasn’t here to see it.

  “Shit, that’s right. Okay, hold on. Where are you?” I told her that I was waiting outside my room and she said to stay there and that help was on the way.

  A few minutes later, Audrey appeared down the hall and smiled at me.

  “Catch,” she said, throwing something at me. It was a set of keys. I caught them and jogged after her.

  “You can take Will’s truck. We’re borrowing a vehicle from Stryker for the time being. You really need to get a car,” she said.

  “Yes, thank you for stating the obvious,” I said, and then regretted it. “I’m sorry, I’m just worried.” She gave me a brilliant smile. She had great teeth.

  “I totally understand.” The green truck was out front and I hopped up into it and gunned the engine. I thanked God Stryker’s apartment was just outside of campus and it only took a few minutes to get there. I parked in the lot, taking up two spaces because I didn’t care. I got out and then I was running into the building and up the stairs. The door banged open and I went for my girl.

  “Ow,” she said as I hugged her hard enough to crack her ribs. I didn’t care. I was just so glad she was okay.

  “I’m sorry,” I said in her ear as I stroked her hair. It was still wet from the shower and dripping down her back. The only part of her visible was her face because the rest of her was covered in enough towels for a beach party.

  Someone cleared their throat and I looked up to find Stryker watching me. I looked back at him with steady eyes. I wanted him to know I was all in. I loved his sister and I wanted to take care of her.

  He searched me for a long time and then his eyes flicked to Trish.

  “Can you stop with the eyeball pissing contest?” she said and I made a face.

  “Pissing eyeballs. That’s not an image I really want in my head,” I said and she stuck her tongue out at me.

  “Are you cold? We should probably get some dry clothes on you,” I said. Before I could ask, Stryker handed me a t-shirt, pants and underwear. They were all pink and I didn’t have to guess who they belonged to.

  “You can take her in the bedroom,” he said, stepping back. Like he was handing over custody. I tried not to think about it too much as I gathered Trish up and helped her to the back of the apartment where Stryker and Katie’s bedroom was.

  I’d never been in there, but I didn’t spare a second to look around. I had more important things to deal with.

  “Let’s get you dressed,” I said, and slowly unearthed Trish from the mound of towels.

  “Where are you?” I joked as I piled more and more of them on the floor.

  “I’m right here,” she said, giving me a tired smile. She looked like she needed to sleep for several days. I’d seen her just this morning when we’d enjoyed some naked time. I could still taste her on my lips. Now, though, she looked worn out and… older. Much older than her almost-nineteen years.

  At last I got the towels and her clothes off. I found a blanket at the end of the bed and decided to wrap her in that once I got fresh clothes on her. It was a job peeling her skinny jeans from her legs, as well as her boots. She shook uncontrollably when I got her naked, so I rushed to get her clothed again.

  I felt a lot better when she had dry clothes and was bundled up like a human burrito in the spare blanket. Of course, it too was pink. The room was a mishmash of girly pink and Stryker’s more industrial style. Somehow it worked. Just like their relationship.

  “Do you want to lie down?” I asked and she nodded and then yawned. I helped her swing her feet up on the bed and she scooted backward and cuddled into the pillows. I made absolutely sure she was covered and not freezing before I gathered up the towels and left the room, closing the door softly.

  “She’s taking a nap, I think,” I said to Stryker as he looked up from the stove. It smelled like he was making soup or something.

  He turned the burner off and nodded.

  “Good. She’s going to need it.” I asked him what to do with towels and he pointed to the hamper. I tossed them in and then wasn’t sure what to do.

  He leaned against the counter and I saw that Trish wasn’t the only one who needed a nap. Stryker had dark circles under his eyes and he was paler than normal.

  “You okay?” I asked. He looked up as if he’d forgotten I was there.

  “Oh, yeah. Sure.”

  “It can’t be easy. The baby and the wedding and now this,” I said. I wasn’t super good at talking to people about stuff like this, but I was going to give it a shot.

  “I guess,” he said, pushing off from the counter and going to the fridge.

  “Want one?” he asked holding out a can of beer.

  “No, I’m good.” I was underage and it was also the middle of the day.

  “I don’t like to drink in front of Katie because she can’t and it makes me feel like an asshole,” he said, popping the top. “So I get it when I can.” He sipped and seemed to relish the taste.

  “If you don’t mind, I’m going to just hang out here and wait for her,” I said, even though it was going to be hella awkward. I didn’t care. I could endure it for Trish. I could endure just about anything for her.

  He shrugged one shoulder.

  “Suit yourself.” Going to the couch, he crashed down on it and turned on the television at a low volume. Guessing it was okay, I went over and joined him, but sat in one of the other chairs.

  “You don’t say a lot, you know,” he said, turning his attention to me.

  “Yeah, I know. Takes me a long time to get comfortable with other people, I guess.”

  “But not with my sister,” he said, pointing at me with his can.

  “No. Not with her.” I couldn’t help but smile when I thought about how easy it was to talk to Trish. Like we’d known each other our entire lives but had lost our memory of it.

  “You love her,” he said. A statement. No hint of a question.

  “Yes,” I said with full conviction. “I love her more than I’ve ever loved anything. I loved her the very first second I met her.” Stryker took another sip from his beer and nodded. Was he grilling me? Silently?

  “My sister doesn’t trust easily. I guess you know a little bit of why. Nearly every single person she’s ever counted on has abandoned or disappointed or hurt her.”

  I kept silent. I was waiting to see where this was going to go. I hoped it ended up in my favor.

  “The very fact that she even told you anything about her past is a fucking miracle, to be honest and it tells me two things. One, that she trusts you, or she’s starting to and two, that she loves you.”

  My heart landed on the floor. It had fallen out of my chest in shock.

  “Wait, what?” I said. I needed him to rewind and say that again.

  He looked at me without blinking.

  “She loves you.” I opened my mouth but no words would come out. Again.

  “She’s not going to say it. We both have a problem with those three little words.” He cracked a small smile. “Trish called me out when she knew I loved Katie. I tried to deny it, but I was being a dumbass. I’d loved her the whole time. I was just too stubborn to admit it.” That sounded familiar. Like brother like sister?

  He sighed.

  “What I’m trying to say is that she cares about you. A lot. And I know you care about her. I’m hoping you’re going to be willing to stick around. To go the distance. To fight for her.” I licked my lips, ready to jump in and tell him I’d do all of those things, but he wasn’t done.

  “She’s not an easy person to love, that’s for damn sure. She makes me regret it every day. But when you love someone like Trish…” he trailed
off. I didn’t need him to tell me that. I knew.

  “I’m in,” I said. “I’m all fucking in. Have been.” He smiled again.

  “Thought so. Must say I’m both surprised and relieved. I can’t wait for the day I can hand her off and she’ll be your problem.” I didn’t get mad at him because he said it with affection. Trish was the same way and I’d gotten used to it.

  “Is she going to be okay? You don’t have to tell me everything, I just want to know if she’s going to be okay.” Stryker leaned back and set his unfinished can of beer on the coffee table.

  “That’s a question I don’t have an answer to. I wish I did. I’m so angry this is coming up again. I’d thought this issue was dead.” He’d gone from being happy about handing off Trish to a protective older brother in the blink of an eye. Stryker was kind of scary when he got protective. No wonder Trish depended on him. He was a knight with shining tattoos and piercings instead of armor. The modern version who wielded a banjo and a tire iron instead of a shield and a sword.

  “But the things you think you’ve buried in your past never stay there,” he said. I could help Trish shoulder this burden. I would.

  “And that’s enough ruminating for one day. You pick something.” He tossed me the remote. Such responsibility. “Katie found one of those birthing shows on a channel I didn’t even know we got and she thought it would be a good idea to watch.” He shuddered and I could sympathize. I’d had to watch one in high school. Full-frontal. Just… everything. Yeah, it was a miracle and all, but yurgh.

  “Okay, no birthing shows. Got it,” I said, going from one channel to the next. I wasn’t a sports fan and I knew Stryker wasn’t either. I finally landed on a VH1’s Behind The Music featuring Pink Floyd.

  “Sweet,” Stryker said, settling further into the couch. I was glad he approved of my choice. We watched the show, but I kept one ear trained on the bedroom, waiting to jump up if Trish woke up and needed anything.

  WHEN I WOKE up, I didn’t know where I was. I also didn’t know why I was wrapped so tight in a blanket that I could barely get my arms free. Finally I did and the fact that the blanket was pink and there were too many pillows on the bed clued me in that I was in Stryker’s bedroom.

  And then everything else crashed down on me and I wished I was asleep again.

  Oh. Fuck.


  I could still remember the way he smelled. Like old rotting beer and stale cigarettes and moldy sweat. He was rancid and gross and didn’t do much besides watch television and get drunk, though sometimes he’d get off his ass and fire a shotgun at what he claimed were squirrels, but were usually passersby.

  I couldn’t believe it when Stryker and I walked into the filthy trailer with our social worker. Even she couldn’t hide her disdain, but she did nothing to help us. I looked up at her and saw a flash of pity, but she buried it and left us there. Stryker stayed within a few feet of me at all times, but Ray made me sleep in a separate bedroom and Stryker got beat up every time he snuck in and stayed with me.

  My stomach heaved as the memories came rushing back. How was it that all these years later, I could still remember the exact smell of that place? I could almost feel it clogging my nostrils. I heaved again, but breathed in the clean fresh air of Stryker’s bedroom and tried to anchor myself in the present.

  I wasn’t back there. I’d gotten out. Stryker and I had gotten out. I was here and I was safe. And I had Max.

  Oh, Max.

  He’d been so worried about me. I saw it in his eyes. It was so sweet how he dressed me and wrapped me up and put me to bed. I wondered if he’d stayed, or if he’d gone back to class or work. I had no idea what time it was.

  Getting up, I realized I was starving. Looking at the clock, I realized it was dinnertime and I’d missed lunch.


  Putting the blanket around me like a cape, I went to the door and stuck my head out. Stryker and Max were on the couch, watching something on TV and laughing. My brother and my boyfriend were laughing together.

  Well. Never thought that would happen.

  I watched for a few seconds, enjoying being a voyeur. But then Max must have sensed me, because his head snapped up.

  “Hey, hun. How are you doing?” He almost broke his neck getting off the chair and vaulting over the couch to get to me. I put my hand up for him to slow his roll.

  “I’m okay, I’m okay,” I said. “Just hungry.”

  “I have soup,” Stryker said, also rising and going to the stove.

  “Awesome. Do you have any pizza?”

  “I can order some,” he said and got out his phone.

  I looked around the room and realized it was very empty.

  “Where is everyone? Where’s Katie?” I asked.

  “They’re all downstairs,” Max said, looking a little worried. For good reason. They were probably going to attack me the second they found out I was awake. Oh, fun.

  “Don’t worry, they’re not planning on a pseudo intervention,” Stryker said, ending the call for pizza and turning off the soup. “Although, I’m pretty sure Lottie is going to force you to eat baked goods. And Simon might offer to build you something.” I almost rolled my eyes. God, I loved them. I really did. I’d resisted it as long as I could, but those goofy, weird, awkward people were my de facto family and I couldn’t have asked for a better one. I’d gone from having the worst to having the best.

  Definitely didn’t deserve it, but it had been handed to me, and I wasn’t giving it back.

  “What’s wrong?” Max said and I realized I was crying.

  “I’m just realizing how many people actually care about me and it’s a little overwhelming,” I said, and he put his arms around me. I closed my eyes and hugged him close. I’d grown accustomed to his smell. It calmed me, soothed me, made me feel safe. It was the smell of love. So different than the smell I’d been remembering earlier. Like fire, this one burned evil away and filled me with hope.

  “You’re wonderful,” I said to him. He smiled like I’d just told him he’d won a million dollars.

  “And you, my wild girl, are exceptional,” he said, leaning down and putting the softest of kisses on my forehead, right between my eyes.

  THERE WAS A knock at the door a half hour after I woke up and Stryker opened it to find a posse of people standing there waiting, plus one very confused pizza delivery guy.

  “I told you, not now,” Stryker said to the group as he paid for the pizza, but I called out to him.

  “It’s okay,” I said and motioned for everyone to come in. Max and I had been watching TV, but the apartment seemed too quiet. Too empty. It needed to be filled with people. I needed it to be filled with people.

  They all filed in and I could tell they were unsure what to say or do. I rolled my eyes.

  “I’m fine, I’m fine. I just had a moment, but it’s gone and I’m back to normal, okay? Stop looking at me like I’m going to go nuts and stab you all or something,” I said. A few sets of eyes looked alarmed.

  “Jesus fucking Christ,” I said, sighing. “Stop it. All of you.” Stryker set the open pizza box in front of me and I grabbed at it with both hands. My stomach roared in delight that it was finally getting attended to.

  “Pizza?” I said, my mouth full of the first bite. There weren’t enough slices for everyone, but I heard Stryker on the phone ordering more. Katie went over to him, touching his shoulder gently. They shared a quick and quiet conversation and Katie came to sit next to me on the side Max wasn’t occupying.

  “Hey, sister,” she said. “How’s it going?”

  “Meh,” I said. “Sister. I always wanted one. Never thought she’d be a pink fanatic,” I said, holding up the edge of the blanket that I still had around me.

  “What can I say? It’s a lifestyle choice.” She smiled and then the ice was broken. Everyone took their seats and argued about pizza and what movie to watch and then about wedding plans.

  “But I could totally do it!” Simon said. His cur
rent scheme was to carve something called a chuppah, which was a sort of archway Jewish couples got married under.

  “But we’re not Jewish,” Katie and Stryker said at the same time.

  “You totally got that idea from Gilmore Girls,” Lottie said, pointing an accusatory finger at Simon.

  “I may have watched a few episodes,” he admitted.

  “Haha! I knew some of my DVDs were missing,” Lottie crowed. “Now comes the all-important question: Dean or Jess?”

  Simon rolled his eyes.

  “As if that’s even a question. Jess, of course. Dean was a bastard.” Lottie hopped off her chair and ran over to give him a high five.

  “There are lots of reasons I love you and I’m adding that to the list,” she said.

  “I hope it’s a very long list,” Simon said, grabbing Brady’s uneaten crusts and starting to munch on them. Gross and cute at the same time.

  “A novel, baby,” Lottie said.

  THE PIZZA DEMOLISHED, we all sort of sat around and talked. We did that a lot, but for some reason it was really affecting me today. I guess I was just realizing how much I cared about these people and how much they cared about me. Really cared.

  And then there was Max. I knew he loved me. He’d said it more than once and I could feel it when he looked at me, but it kept hitting me. I was always thinking that he would wake up one day and come to his senses.

  This couldn’t last. He couldn’t keep this up.

  But… what if he could? What if he’d decided that I was the one for him? That thought almost made me want to laugh a little. I wasn’t the kind of girl who was “the one” for anyone, but stranger things had happened.

  “You ready to go, sweets?” Max said in my ear. Even though I’d had a nap, I was ready to go to bed.

  “Yeah,” I said. I started to unwind myself from the blanket, but Katie told me that I could keep it.

  “It’s pink,” I said, stating the obvious.

  “Maybe it will grow on you,” she said with a wink. Stryker leaned over and kissed her belly. Kissing the little being growing inside. My niece or nephew.

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