Together We Heal by Chelsea M. Cameron

  “Yes, I have,” he said, his face serious.

  I sighed dramatically.

  “What am I going to do with you?” He raised and lowered his eyebrows, which only made me laugh more.

  “Anything you want,” he said in a seductive voice. He knew just which buttons to push, in my brain and on my body. It was like he was designed to turn me on and make me want him.

  “I want to do everything with you,” I said, getting a little serious. “You know I do. And we’re going to do it. We’re going to do everything.” As I said it, I started aching again.

  “Everything?” He raised one eyebrow and I could tell he was also getting turned on. I had no idea how guys walked around with those things all the time. I’d go crazy.

  “Yeah,” I said. Once we got to that point, I literally wanted to do anything that two people could do together when they were naked.

  “Well, fuck me,” he said, shifting and trying to discreetly adjust himself.

  “I plan on it,” I said and then he groaned and rolled onto his back.

  “You’re killing me, woman.”

  IT WAS AMAZING to see how much progress she’d made in such a short time. Even after just one session she was more introspective. More thoughtful. I caught her staring off into space and thinking a lot. It was sexy as hell. She also wrote incessantly in her notebook, sitting cross-legged on her bed, pen flying across the paper and her eyebrows furrowed in concentration. I snuck a few pictures of her on my phone because I couldn’t help myself.

  It made me consider maybe going myself. I didn’t have as intense issues as Trish did, but I didn’t know what to do about my parents. I wished they would just be normal and be happy for me and ask about my grades and when I was coming home to visit. Right now, I was worried that by the time I graduated I would have driven a wedge between us that couldn’t ever be removed.

  We were heading to dinner at Lottie and Zan’s tonight and everyone was hoping for an update on how Trish was doing. I’d already gotten calls from everyone asking me if I would tell them how it had gone. Guess Trish was telling them to mind their own business. I would have been lying if I said that didn’t make me smug that she shared about her sessions with me and no one else.

  I beat her back after class. I’d shifted my hours around at the gym again so I was working a little bit less. I wanted to see Trish more than I wanted financial stability, which was probably not the right place to put my priorities, but whatever. I had the rest of my life to earn money. Besides, summer was coming up and I could work as many hours as I wanted to get cash.

  I was happy I was there first, because it gave me time to set up her little present. I’d found a cool notebook in the bookstore today with a picture of an orange goldfish on the front. I hoped she’d like it. I also got her some fun colored pens to go with it. Sure, it wasn’t much, but I hoped she’d like it.

  She came through the door with a smile on her face, which was definitely a good sign.

  “Hey, Max,” she said, coming over and giving me a kiss, nearly making me fall off the bed in surprise. Damn, this therapist was good. I was definitely thinking about going to see her.

  “Well, hello, hun. How was your day?” I said and she sighed happily.

  “Really good.” She set her bag down and leaned against me. “Therapy was good. Beth isn’t what I initially thought she was. I guess I just assumed when I saw her what she’d be like, but we actually have a lot in common, crazily enough. She told me about her childhood and afterward I don’t know, it was easier to tell her about mine.” She shrugged one shoulder like it was no big deal.

  It was a huge deal.

  “I’m so fucking proud of you,” I said, giving her a tight hug that made her squirm and beg for me to let her go.

  “Stop it, stop it. I don’t want you to make a big deal out of it.” Her face was red.

  “Well, I’m going to.” She stuck her tongue out at me and then she noticed the notebook.

  “What’s this?” she said, picking it and the pens up.

  “It’s a present for you. Last night you said you needed a new one, so here it is,” I said and she brushed the cover with her fingers.

  “Thanks, Max. That’s really, really sweet.” She looked up from the notebook and beamed at me. This happy-go-lucky Trish was going to take some getting used to.

  “It’s no big deal,” I said as she opened the cover and pulled out one of the pens and tested it.

  “No, it is. You’ve been so supportive of me since the very beginning. You make me believe that love exists. The kind you read about.” She finished the drawing and it was a heart with our initials in it. Cheesy and sweet at the same time.

  “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m not a billionaire cowboy with a leather and whip fetish,” I said and she laughed and closed the notebook.

  “That’s okay, I like you anyway.” She said and kissed my lips.

  I FELT SO… light. Like I had to check and see if my feet were on the ground because I couldn’t tell. Beth was pretty awesome, I had to admit. She was one of those people whose appearance was pretty much the opposite of who she was.

  Her childhood had been almost a mirror of mine. Hard and shitty and the stuff of many people’s nightmares. I was shocked when she opened up to me, but she told me her story with the ease of someone who’s told it more than once. She also told me about her husband and I looked at the huge rock on her finger. They’d met when they were kids in a foster home, and she kind of joked that their relationship was incestuous, even though they weren’t technically related.

  “It helps, finding people who can sympathize with what you’ve been through. But don’t limit yourself to those people. Max hasn’t had a life like yours, but that doesn’t mean he would never understand. He won’t if you don’t give him the chance.”

  It all made sense, even if I didn’t want it to.

  I had to give Max a chance. He hadn’t screwed me over so far. And if I didn’t open up to him, we could never move forward together, like he said. On the same path.

  Before we went over to Lottie’s, I told him some of the other stories from my childhood. Some of the good ones. It wasn’t all horrible. He laughed when I told him about the first time I dyed my hair when I was twelve, with actual bleach from under the sink.

  “I thought Stryker was going to die from laughing so hard. About half my hair fell out and I just braided back the rest. I thought about doing dreads with it, but then it grew back.” Then Max told me about his own hair dyeing mishaps involving a shower curtain and some blue hair dye.

  “It looked like I had slaughtered a Smurf. The blue was fucking everywhere. My mom’s eyes got so wide I thought they were going to fall out of her head.” He smiled when he talked about his mom. I decided to ask about his family and to encourage him to talk about them more. I thought that part of the reason he didn’t was that he didn’t want to, I don’t know, rub it in my face that he had two parents who hadn’t had a meth lab in the basement. They were relatively normal, as far as parents went. Even in their twisted way, they wanted the best for him, while my parents had wanted Stryker and me to not exist. Sometimes I wondered why they didn’t just leave us somewhere, or just not have us in the first place. I was never gonna find out.

  LOTTIE WAS FRAZZLED when we got to the apartment, rushing around and trying to get everything ready.

  “Ugh, I had a lab that ran late and now I’m scrambling,” she said, stirring two pots at once.

  “Anything I can do to help?” I asked, even though cooking wasn’t really my forte. Stryker had tried to teach me when we were younger, but I guess I just didn’t have the knack for it or something. He always joked that I would be a terrible wife and I’d fire back that cooking didn’t require a vagina, so my husband would have to be the one to do it.

  “No, I’m good,” she said, turning the oven off and telling Zan to get the plates out. Katie and Stryker came down and she was moving a little slowly.

  “I’m so
bleeping tired,” she said, sitting on the couch and closing her eyes. “I mean, I know pregnant women bitch all the time about stuff, but it’s all true.” She sighed and Stryker sat next to her, pulling her feet into his lap, taking her shoes off and starting to massage her ankles. Katie moaned a little.

  “Okay, that’s getting a little pornographic,” I said and Katie shot me a glare and pointed at me.

  “Don’t mess with the pregnant woman. She will fuck your shit up and do it with swollen ankles. Just wait until your time comes.” Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. Unless there was an accident, I wasn’t having kids. I’d gotten an IUD put in just before I came to school.

  Simon and Brady arrived at that moment and Simon had brought Katie a present. It was a carved sign that said THE GRANTS on it. I had to stifle a laugh because it was such a white-bread-picket-fence thing. The type of sign you’d see on a whimsical mailbox outside of a cookie-cutter house in the ‘burbs. Definitely not where Stryker and Katie would end up. I mean, I didn’t think so. Katie was from that world, but I knew she didn’t want to go back or live like that.

  My brother and Katie thanked him profusely and said that they loved it.

  “I’m going to put it on the door tonight,” Stryker said and Simon blushed from all the praise.

  “See, baby? You’re so talented,” Brady said, kissing Simon’s cheek.

  “Aw, thank you, love.”

  Will and Audrey came in and Will made gagging noises. Simon just grabbed Brady, planted a kiss on him and gave Will the finger behind Brady’s back.

  “Boys, boys,” Lottie said, admonishing them with a spoon. “I don’t have time for this crap. Go sit down and be good.” Now if anyone was going to make an excellent mother, it was Lottie. She even had the “mom look” down already. No doubt she was going to be Auntie Lottie and do a lot of babysitting. Stryker and Katie had already decided to stay in the apartment, even though it only had the one bedroom. The baby was going to stay with them at least for the beginning and then they’d probably make a decision when he or she was old enough to need their own room. Who knew what was going to happen by then anyway?

  “You look super happy today,” Audrey said to me as Lottie started dishing things out and yelling at people to come get their plates.

  “I think that’s a compliment?” I said.

  “It definitely is,” she said, patting my shoulder. “It’s good to see you happy. Restores my faith in the world.” I rolled my eyes at her.

  “I think that’s giving me a bit too much credit,” I said.

  “Not at all.” She gave me a wink and went to stand in between Will and Simon so they didn’t strangle each other.

  “YOU DO LOOK happy, sweets,” Max said as I sat on his lap. Lottie had made too much food again and we were all sitting around and digesting.

  “I feel… well, not like perfectly happy, but on my way to getting there, if that makes sense.” His lips were on my shoulder and his fingers made lazy patterns up and down my arm. I was feeling like I wanted to get him alone and potentially naked.

  I really needed to tell him everything before we actually had sex, though. It wasn’t fair to him to keep him in the dark. Beth had helped me see that not only was I lying to him, to Stryker and the rest of my friends, but I was lying to myself. Not accepting who I was would only lead to heartbreak down the road. And it wasn’t even that big a deal. I hoped.

  Max loved me, and if it was real, he had to love all of me. Every part. The messy parts and the awkward parts and the secret parts.

  It wasn’t going to happen overnight, but we were taking steps forward again and I liked the way it felt.

  I PROGRESSED OVER the next few weeks with therapy. Beth had become a de facto friend and I looked forward to seeing her every week. She applauded my work and it felt good to have a person in authority that I respected tell me I was doing a good job. Made me realize how few times I’d heard it in my life.

  Since Stryker and I had moved so much, we switched schools a lot and I’d never really been much of an academic. Not like Stryker. I also had “issues with authority” so I’d never become close with teachers. Most of them thought I had a bad attitude and the ones who tried to help me, well, I wasn’t very nice to them. I was suspicious of anyone who tried to help me back then. Social workers, foster parents, etc. Because why would they give a shit about me? My own parents didn’t, so why would some stranger?

  Beth also got me remembering things that I’d thought I’d forgotten. Bits and pieces of other memories I’d been able to shove away up until now. A lot of it sucked, honestly, but no one said making changes and progress was a fucking piece of cake.

  I nearly filled the new notebook that Max had gotten me. Since the pens were all different colors, I used different ones for different emotions. I also started doing little doodles. Once again, I wasn’t like Stryker, but I could do little cartoons. I wrote Max more letters. Some were short, some were longer. I tore them out of the book and put them all together, tied up with a ribbon. His birthday was in about two weeks and I was hoping I’d be ready to give them to him then. I’d put more work into those letters than just going to the mall and buying some crap that didn’t mean anything.

  My own birthday was in a month and I really didn’t want to deal with it. Birthdays had never been much to celebrate, even though Stryker had always done something for me. One year, because we almost never got presents, he had me write out a list of what I wanted, if I could have anything. Then he got some paper and markers from school and drew everything I’d asked for in great detail. Including a unicorn/Pegasus, which is a real thing because I said so. It turned out to be one of my best birthdays. He even drew me a cake, which made me feel a little bit like Harry Potter except I didn’t get my own sweet-ass closet under the stairs. That kid didn’t have it too bad. Back then, Stryker and I were sharing a dirty mattress on the floor that didn’t have sheets or pillows. Now that was rough.

  “So what do you want for your birthday?” Max asked on Saturday morning. Neither of us had to work, so we were doing another date. This time I was doing the planning and it was pretty difficult to find something that was both cheap and fairly local. I didn’t really have the time to drive to another state, but I found what I was looking for at a mall about an hour from campus.

  “I don’t want anything. Seriously. I’m not big on birthdays,” I said, which was the same thing I’d said to him since he’d started asking.

  “That’s not a good answer. I’m going to get you something and if you don’t tell me what you want, then you’re going to get something crappy.” I shrugged. A crappy birthday present wasn’t the worst thing that had ever happened to me. Not even close.

  “Why aren’t you excited?” he said, not letting it go. I climbed over him and got out of bed.

  “Why aren’t you excited about your own birthday? It’s before mine.” Now he was the one shrugging.

  “See? You can’t get mad at me and then do the same damn thing.” I grabbed some clothes and my shower stuff and left the room before he could argue with me about it some more.

  IT BUMMED ME out that she wasn’t excited about her birthday. Sure, I wasn’t that excited about mine, but I’d had decent birthdays my whole life. I knew it was a tough thing for Trish, but I wanted to do something to change that. She’d made so much progress and deserved a reward for that hard work.

  I was going to enlist everyone’s help and she was probably going to hate it, but there was a small chance that she would secretly love it, even if she wouldn’t admit it.

  When I got back from the shower she was putting her hair up in a messy bun.

  “Almost ready?” she said, wrapping the elastic one more time around the bun.

  “Yup,” I said. I was seriously excited about the date. It was going to be awesome, no matter what we did.

  She’d dressed super cute today in a pair of ripped jeans and a t-shirt with a cool graphic on the front. I did my hair, gelling it up the way she liked
and then we were off.

  “What do you want for your birthday?” she asked as we drove off campus.

  “Oh, so it’s okay to talk about my birthday, but not yours?”

  “Yeah, pretty much,” she said with a smile.

  “I don’t care. As long as my birthday has you in it, that’s all I want,” I said.

  “You’re full of shit.”

  “Trish.” She looked over at me.


  “I seriously don’t want anything but you. That’s it.” She gave me a long look, but then had to turn her attention back to the road.

  “You scare me when you say things like that,” she said. As a part of her new honesty policy, she shared more of what she was thinking instead of just making a snarky comment and changing the subject. It made me happy, knowing what was really going on in her brain.

  “What do you mean, I scare you? Because I love you?” We both had to trust each other more with our feelings.

  “Pretty much. That scares me a lot. Stryker loving me is one thing. My friends loving me is another. And then there’s you. That’s the kind of love that scares me the most.” I had an inkling that was how she felt, but I didn’t know for sure until she said it out loud.

  “And what about it scares you?”

  She sighed and fiddled with the vents in the car.

  “Because I feel like I can never live up to it, you know? You see this idealized version of me that isn’t real and sooner or later you’re going to figure out that I’m not the girl you think I am and then you’ll leave. I couldn’t deal with that.” It was a struggle not to interrupt her, but I kept my mouth shut and let her get it out.

  “I… I can’t say it yet, Max, but I feel it. I feel more for you than I’ve ever felt for anyone. And the fact that I’m even telling you this scares the shit out of me, but I can’t not tell you anymore. So I’m going to tell you part. I something something. That’s one third of it.” I thought about what she was trying to say and I couldn’t help but laugh. God, I loved her.

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