Together We Heal by Chelsea M. Cameron

  I didn’t think I’d be as happy about the baby as I was. I almost couldn’t wait to see if it was a boy or a girl. Secretly, I was hoping for a girl so I could be cool Aunt Trish and corrupt her when she was a teenager. It was going to be awesome.

  “Do you mind if I smoke first?” I asked when we got back to Will’s truck. I’d cut way down and was only smoking occasionally when I was stressed. Stryker had ceased to allow smoking, even outside the house. He was afraid that somehow the smoke would get into the house and hurt Katie and the baby. Silly, but it was also sweet. He was going to be such a great dad. Probably a little overbearing, but he might loosen up as the years went on.

  “Sure, go ahead,” Max said and I pulled a spare cigarette that I kept in my pocket, along with a lighter. The first inhale was heaven. It was such a shame these things would kill you.

  “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked as he drove Will’s truck back to the dorm. It was pretty nice of Will to loan it to us because everyone knew how much he adored that hunk of junk.

  “When we get back,” I said.


  I WAS SHOCKED when she said we’d talk when we got back. I parked the truck next to her car and then we went up to my room.

  I shut the door and she sat down on my bed. Usually, when we talked it was after we’d been together, but tonight she seemed ready to talk.

  Sitting down next to her, I waited.

  “He got arrested. My uncle Ray. The one who hurt me,” she said after she took a breath.

  “Oh,” I said. No wonder she’d had a breakdown. It probably had brought forward all those horrible things from her past.

  “He got arrested for rape.” It was like being punched in the stomach and I couldn’t begin to imagine what it was like for her.

  Her mouth was a tight line.

  “He was arrested and I feel so guilty. I feel like it’s my fault that it happened,” she said. I wanted so much to tell her she was wrong, but I zipped my trap shut.

  “I know it’s not. That he’s a monster, but still. It hurts.” I nodded and she reached out to me. I put my arms around her and held her tight.

  “I wanted to kill him so much. I fantasized about it so many times. I figured out how to do it a million different ways,” she said. It probably should have scared me, what she was telling me, but it didn’t. I wanted to get my hands around his neck right now.

  “It’s okay,” I said, rubbing her back. “It’s okay.”

  She sighed and held me tight.

  “I love you so much,” I said.

  “I know. I want to tell you that I do too, but I can’t yet. Someday I will. Soon. Someday soon,” she said and I pulled back so I could see her face.

  “Really?” I said.

  She nodded.


  I kept my shirt and boxers on when we went to sleep and she didn’t comment about it. I wasn’t an asshole and I didn’t want to push her when her past had just gotten dredged up again.

  In the morning I woke and found her staring at the ceiling.

  “You okay?”

  “Not really. I didn’t sleep at all,” she said and I could tell. There were dark marks etched under her eyes. It was easy to see she’d been up all night.

  “Why didn’t you wake me up?” I asked. She shook her head.

  “I don’t know. I thought I was okay and then I started thinking and I couldn’t stop. I kept going through what happened and thinking about him and how he smelled and then all the other things that happened to us. Yes, Ray was awful, but he wasn’t the only one who hurt us.”

  Fuck, this was very intense for so early in the morning. Our alarms hadn’t gone off yet. I needed to get my head on straight so I could think because I had no idea how to deal with this.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, as if she sensed that I was having a hard time with it.

  “No, no, it’s okay. I’m sorry you couldn’t sleep. If you would have woken me up we could have talked all night about other stuff. Good stuff,” I said.

  “That would have been a lot better,” she said, finally turning to look at me. “Sorry.”

  “Stop apologizing or else I’m going to kiss you with un-brushed teeth,” I said, hoping she’d smile, but she didn’t.

  “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I… I can’t.” Shit, way to put your foot in your mouth, Max.

  “No, I’m sorry. I should have— Fuck, I keep messing this up.” I should probably get out of bed and just stop talking.

  “It’s okay. It’s my problem,” Trish said, climbing over me without even touching me. I was hard, because I was pretty much every morning, but I’d break my dick before I asked her if she was going to do anything about it. I could take a shower and deal with it myself.

  Trish grabbed a change of clothes and was out the door before I could say anything else. It was like a wall had been put between us overnight. I was kicking myself for not waking up and realizing she was having a hard time. What kind of boyfriend was I?

  I THOUGHT I was fine. I thought I was past it. That the nap and the pizza and everything else had pushed the past aside and I was firmly rooted in the present.

  And then the lights went off and Max’s deep breathing filled the room and my eyes stayed open. Every time I tried to think of one thing, something else would swoop in and I got sucked into a downward spiral that I couldn’t climb my way out of.

  No matter how hot I turned the water, I couldn’t seem to get warm. I didn’t want to go to class. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to go to bed and sleep for about a year. Usually Max being concerned about me was sweet, but today it felt suffocating. Too much. I just wanted everyone to leave me alone.

  He didn’t say a whole lot as we got ready and I told Max I didn’t want to have breakfast. I wasn’t hungry. I just felt sick.

  “Just let me know if you want to talk, or you need anything,” he said and I could tell he was hurt. It killed me to do it, but I didn’t know what else to do.

  I was definitely broken. Maybe now he’d take his chance. It would almost be a relief if he did. Then I would know that I was right and I wouldn’t have to wait anymore for him to leave.

  FOR THE REST of the week, I barely got any sleep and I pushed more and more space between Max and me. He tried to hide how hurt he was by that distance, but I could see it in his eyes.

  I kept thinking about Ray. He’d crept his way into my mind, like a black ooze and had corrupted all my thoughts. I tried not to let it happen, but once it started, the sickness spread.

  I stopped eating. Everyone was worried about me, but I just yelled and cursed and told them to leave me alone.

  Finally the weekend came and Stryker called and asked Max and me over to the house for dinner. I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t really have a choice. Max basically threw me into the car, shut the door and drove to the apartment. I felt like a prisoner, but I was even more a prisoner of my own mind.

  There were about a bazillion cars parked around Stryker’s building. I thought about locking myself in the car and refusing to get out, but that would cause even more of a scene. I just didn’t have the energy to do anything anymore. Not even fight.

  Max tried to help me out of the car, but I wouldn’t let him touch me. I hadn’t let him touch me in days. The worst part was that I ached for him. I yearned for what we’d had only days ago. I pictured myself leaning over and kissing him. Taking my clothes off and letting him have everything. And then Ray’s face would bloom in my mind like a disgusting flower with rotting teeth and beer breath. That was all it took to stop me.

  Max opened the door for me. He’d been solemn the whole way, instead of just sad and dejected. Something was definitely up, but my suspicions weren’t confirmed until we walked through the door and everyone was there and they were silent and wearing identical looks to Max’s.

  Well, shit. It was easy to see what this was. I thought about turning around and going for the car, but I didn’t have the keys an
d it would take too long to hotwire the thing. They’d catch me before I got away. I wasn’t in the greatest shape and I didn’t have the longest legs. So the only other option I had was to hear what they had to say.

  I knew they were worried about me. I was worried about me, but I didn’t know how to get myself out of my dark place. I’d gone here before. I was sure Stryker remembered it well.

  “Trish?” Stryker said, standing and coming toward me.

  “Yeah,” I said, completely defeated.

  “We’re all worried about you. I haven’t told anyone else but Max what’s been going on, so you don’t have to worry, but we’re all here because we love you and we don’t want to see you unhappy.” His voice was steady and true and it was very similar to the speech he’d given me last time.

  “I know,” I said, my voice rough. I’d barely spoken in the past few days. I’d just sort of been slogging along.

  “I don’t want to talk about it,” I said. I would say that until I was blue in the face, but it probably wouldn’t help.

  “When I lost my dad, I went to a therapist. It helped a lot,” Katie said. I knew that. I also knew Zan and Audrey had been in therapy. I didn’t want to go to therapy. I just wanted them all to go away and let me be.

  “I don’t want it,” I said, hating how whiny my voice sounded. I couldn’t deal with all these eyes on me. I turned my back on them, which was beyond childish. Whatever.

  “Trish,” Max said. “We all love you. We want you to come back to us.” I was being eaten away by darkness. How many times could this happen? What if I couldn’t come back and be myself again? What if I was forever tainted?

  “You’re not broken,” Max whispered so low that only I could hear it. “This cannot break you. You’re the strongest person I know. You are stronger than anything that could happen to you. I’m here for you. We’re all here for you and we’re not going anywhere, no matter how much you push us away. We’re going to be there.” He was so stubborn and I wanted to smack him and kiss him at the same time.

  I didn’t know what to say. What to do. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. A single image broke through the dark thoughts. Max smiling at me. I hadn’t seen it in a few days and I missed it. Me being like this was dragging him down into the darkness as well. Just telling him to go away and move on wasn’t going to cut it. He was too fucking stubborn, which was probably one of the reasons I liked him so much.

  No, liked wasn’t the right word.

  Loved. I loved him.

  I had for ages, but I wouldn’t let myself think it. I always avoided the word, but in this second it had run up and tackled me.

  Love, love, love.

  I loved Max.

  It had probably been totally obvious to everyone, including me. I was trying to get away from it, but it had happened anyway. I was also sure Stryker hadn’t intended to fall in love with Katie and Lottie hadn’t intended to fall in love with Zan. And I was also sure Max hadn’t intended to fall for me.

  But we all fell and there was nothing to do but stretch your arms out and let go.

  I wasn’t really good at letting go. I liked having things my way. It was partially because that was my personality and partially a result of my life experiences. It didn’t really matter. Love was love and I was in the throes of it.

  “Trish?” While I’d been having my little epiphany, everyone had been waiting. I wondered how long I’d taken. I had no idea. Oops.

  “Yeah?” I said, turning around and seeing Max. Shit, I loved him. I really, really did. So much that I wanted to hurl myself at him even though we were in mixed company. Not that that had stopped me before. I didn’t care what they saw. They’d all done worse.

  “Are you okay?” he asked. I thought about it for a second.

  “Not at this very moment, but I think I will be,” I said. I wasn’t totally on board with the therapy thing, but they were all going to hound me to no end if I didn’t do something. I’d only been in this dark place for a few days and that was more than enough. I didn’t want to go on like this. It would ruin my life. I didn’t want to let it.

  “You don’t have to go tomorrow. You don’t even have to go next week. But I think it would be good for you to talk to someone.” I thought about it some more. This definitely seemed like time to go in that direction. Hell, maybe it would help me not be so screwed up. Maybe it would help me start to put the pieces of myself that had been broken back together and start to heal myself for real this time.

  WHEN STRYKER FIRST called me to suggest the intervention, at first, it sounded like an insane idea. But none of us knew what else to do.

  Trish and I were still sleeping in the same bed, if you could call it that since she stayed awake while I pretended to sleep. She wasn’t wearing her contacts. She’d also stopped wearing makeup and was just… not herself. It made me want to find this Ray and make him wish he was never born.

  We all felt a little guilty about springing the intervention on her, but that was pretty much how an intervention worked. It was like the worst surprise party ever.

  And it went better than any of us thought it would, actually. She didn’t yell, or punch anyone, or run away. Not that she’d get very far because Zan ran all the time and had seriously long legs.

  The wheels were turning in her head and I was thrilled to see clarity come back into her eyes. I hadn’t seen that for days.

  Finally she spoke and her voice was back to its normal tone. Thank God. I wanted to throw myself at her feet and kiss them.

  “I’ll go,” she said. “I’ll go.” She licked her lips and gave me a very small smile.

  Well. Trish hadn’t unleashed her temper. She’d given in without much of a fight. That concerned me, but I should be glad she’d agreed, right? This was a good thing. I was just making a big deal out of nothing.

  There was almost an audible sigh of relief when Trish said she’d go.

  “Well, that means I can bring out this,” Simon said, reaching behind the couch. Stryker glared at him, but Simon just ignored Stryker and went to the wall and had Brady help him hang something up.

  It was a sign. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Our friends were pretty notorious for throwing parties and making strange signs. Like when Katie got pregnant. There would probably be one at the wedding.

  CONGRATULATIONS! it said, in big bold letters.

  “Congratulations for what?” Trish asked.

  “For deciding that you need help and that it’s okay to ask for it. I was going to add something else, but I wasn’t sure what.”

  “You’re all assholes,” Trish said, but it was definitely her way of saying that she loved them all.

  Then, because there was always food, we all had dinner.

  “Um, are we trying to feed a small country?” Trish asked, looking at the spread. There was pasta and salad and nachos and cheesy bread and fried rice and stir fry.

  “We were all stressed, so this was how we managed it,” Lottie said. I had the feeling she was responsible for a lot of the food and that she’d roped in help.

  Trish just shook her head and grabbed a plate.

  DINNER WAS THE same as usual, which was absolutely the best. Trish wasn’t totally back to herself, but she smiled a few times and laughed and made snarky comments.

  “You okay?” I asked, nudging her as everyone took their dishes to the kitchen.

  “I’m so sorry, Max,” she said and her eyes were getting a little red. Like she was going to cry.

  “It’s okay, hun. It’s okay.” I brushed my fingers along her cheek and I realized how much I missed the feel of her skin.

  “It’s going to take time. We made so much progress and now we’ve taken about a million steps backward,” she said, frowning.

  “It doesn’t matter. We’re on the same path and going in the same direction. Stepping forward or back is okay. As long as we’re together.” I just wanted to crush her in my arms. She’d been a thousand miles away from me for days and it had almost b
roken my damn heart.

  She gave me a soft smile.

  “I like the sound of that.”

  THEY WERE GOOD, I’d give them that. Normally I would have put up a fight, but fight for what? To be miserable and live in darkness and have Max slowly start resenting me? Hell fucking no. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted a life. I wanted freedom from this prison. Now Ray was in his and I was going to get out of mine. We were switching places and it actually felt good.

  We stayed late at Stryker’s. I didn’t want to go back to Max’s room and just end up pushing him away again. I hated doing that.

  “IF YOU WANT, I can sleep in the other bed tonight,” Max said when we got back to his room. It was like he’d read my thoughts, and I realized that I didn’t want to sleep without him. Even if we didn’t touch, just having him there made me feel protected and safer than if he stayed in the other bed.

  “No. I want you with me,” I said and his eyebrows went up. He was surprised.

  “I just mean that I want you sleeping next to me. I can’t imagine going back from that. No more steps back tonight,” I said. He exhaled an audible sigh of relief.

  “Okay then.”

  We stayed in the same bed and I let him touch me here and there, but I stalled out again when I thought about doing anything else.

  The next day I found the counselor on campus and skipped one of my classes to go and make an appointment.

  “Are you nervous?” Max said that morning. I’d thought about not telling him I was going, but I knew he’d find out anyway. Plus, I wanted him on this journey with me. Like he said, we were on the same path and I wanted it to stay that way.

  “I don’t even know. I think it won’t hit me until I’m actually sitting in front of her on the couch. Is it a couch? I feel like that’s just in movies,” I said. Max shrugged. He’d never been to a therapist so he didn’t know.

  “Well, you’re useless,” I said, giving him a smile so he would know I was joking.

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