Together We Heal by Chelsea M. Cameron

  “This just fucking happened, Trish. I haven’t had a chance to even start thinking about how this is going to work, so lay off. I don’t need your judgment right now.” He stormed away from me. Stryker and I yelled at each other a lot, but most of the time we argued about stupid shit, like which movie to watch, or if I could drive his car.

  He was mad. Really mad. I was going to have to do a lot of groveling to make up for my mouth. Why did I always let the words in my head come out? I seriously had no filter. Most of the time it worked for me, but not when it hurt Stryker. I would have been nowhere without him. Without Stryker, I would be dead. I knew that for a fact.

  Katie followed him and I went to get a glass of water or a beer or something. I needed something to do.

  “What was that?” Lottie asked, creeping up behind me. She was small and sneaky.

  “Me being me,” I said, opening the fridge and looking in, but seeing nothing.

  “It’s pretty crazy, right?” she said. “I can’t even imagine.” She shuddered. “I feel like I want to go out and buy a bunch of condoms just in case.”

  “Yeah, I know, right?” I said, because she didn’t know Max and I weren’t having sex. I’d lied to her and said it was great and we were doing it all the time. Couldn’t keep our hands off each other. In public we touched a lot, so I made it seem like we were totally physical.

  Max and I had never had sex and that was one of the reasons our relationship was doomed for failure. Any day now, he was going to wake up and realize what he was missing and go find it somewhere else.

  I stayed in the kitchen, away from the hubbub. I was just waiting for the time when I could leave and go pick Max up.

  “To Pinky and her embryo!” Allan said, and that caused a lot of rounds of toasting to Katie and Stryker and their unborn spawn. It made me angry, but it also made me something else.

  Jealous. I shoved both feelings aside and went out to the car. I was going to be early to get Max, but at least I was getting out of there.

  SHE WAS EARLY and she was twitching all over the place. Her violet-tinted eyes (courtesy of contacts) darted here and there and wouldn’t settle on anything. She came behind the desk with me to wait for my shift to end, but she was so distracted, I almost asked her if she’d like to go take a walk on the track or something.

  “You sure you’re okay?” I asked as she chewed on her nails. They were covered in chipped black polish.

  “Yup. Fine and dandy,” she said, examining her nails.

  At last it was time for me to clock out. I usually ditched the stupid polo shirt I had to wear to work here, but Trish needed me more than I needed to change.

  “Ready to go?” I asked as I gathered my stuff. She hopped off the stool she’d been sitting on and followed me out to the parking lot where the car was still running. It was cold at night so she couldn’t turn the car off or else it might not start up again and then we would have been stranded for a while.

  “Your place or mine?” I asked. We switched off nights staying in her dorm room and mine. I had a roommate for a while, but he left and they hadn’t assigned me a new one yet. Trish had a roommate, but she was gone a lot, so we had options either way.

  “Yours, I guess,” she said. Her twitchiness had turned into stillness and silence. Trish’s moods were hard to follow, but I was learning.

  She pulled into the parking lot next to my dorm and turned the car off. Hopefully she’d be able to get it started tomorrow.

  Trish kept up the silent act as we walked into my room, she dumped her stuff and sat on her bed.

  We didn’t sleep together. She used my former roommate’s mattress and I slept on mine. When we stayed at her place, I slept on a pile of blankets on the floor. It was comfortable enough.

  She turned on the television and flipped through the channels. I moved around the room, picking up and putting things away.

  “You want some coffee?” She shook her head, but I decided to make some anyway. I pulled the illegal coffeepot out from under my bed and plugged it in.

  Trish sat on her bed, chewing her lip and staring off into space. This was one of those times when I had to decide whether asking her to talk to me would be a good idea or a bad idea. You never knew with Trish.

  “Trish?” I said, sitting down next to her and putting my arm around her. She was fine with me touching her in public, but she could get weird about it when we were alone.

  She flinched a little but didn’t shift away. Finally she turned to look at me.

  “What?” she snapped.

  “You seem really upset and I want to talk to you about it,” I said in a slow voice.

  “I’m not upset,” she said in a tone that didn’t convince me. “I’m just tired. I’m so tired.” She softened and leaned on my shoulder.

  “I know, hun,” I said, stroking her shoulder. Sighing, she put her arms around my waist.

  “Why do you bother with me, Max?” she said in a low voice.

  “Because you’re one of a kind, Trishella Grant,” I said. Using her full name earned me a pinch on my side.

  “Don’t make me regret that I told you my real name,” she said, looking up at me. Her eyes were wide and vulnerable. It was rare to see her like this and I wanted to hold onto this moment. I stroked her cheek with my other hand and placed a kiss on her forehead.

  “Your secret is safe with me, sweets.”

  I WAS A bitch. A cold, heartless bitch. It was a miracle I even had friends. Or a boyfriend. How it happened, I didn’t know.

  Max and I slept in our separate beds like a married couple from a 1950s television show. I’d never slept with Max, and not even in the resting sense. It was too intense. More intense even than sex. I’d had sex in my life, but I didn’t have a good relationship with it. Not at all.

  He never complained. When I first told him that there were lines I didn’t want to cross in our relationship, he agreed. No questions asked. No telling me that I was crazy and he wasn’t going to do that. Nope, he hopped right onboard my crazy train and he’d been riding it ever since.

  I needed to call Stryker and apologize, but when I got up on Friday morning, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to him. I just wanted to lay in bed and skip all my classes. But we were nearing the end of the semester and I couldn’t really afford to skip. Despite my “I don’t give a shit” attitude, I always got my ass to class. Stryker hadn’t struggled to get me here only to have me waste this opportunity.

  Max and I showered separately and then went to breakfast together. We used to dine with Lottie, Will, Audrey, Simon and Brady, but it was just the two of us today. Lottie was now living with Zan, so she probably ate omelets off his abs or something every morning.

  The rest of them either had wonky class schedules or just didn’t have the time today. Max was his usual sweet self, getting me coffee, passing me the syrup and smiling at me as if I was the prettiest girl in the world.

  Sometimes it freaked me out how much he seemed to like me. But then again, I liked him too. I just wasn’t as obvious about it.

  I could tell he was watching me and wanted to talk about my little shutdown-slash-freak out last night. It was a combination of things and some of those things I didn’t want to tell him. Would never tell him. I remembered not that long ago talking to Audrey about secrets. Giving her advice about talking to Will. She took it, told him that she’d had a daughter and given her up for adoption and things turned out fine. Will had even been to visit her daughter and adoptive parents. Somehow he even became friends with the father of the baby, Eddie. Go figure.

  But my secrets were something else. Something deeper. Something darker. Something that was the stuff of nightmares. I didn’t talk about it, even to Stryker. I never talked about it and did whatever I could to not think about any of it.

  The other part of it was that I had no idea how to feel about the fact that I was going to be an aunt and my brother was going to be a father. I mean, what the fuck?

  A baby. I couldn?
??t picture him holding a baby. Being a dad and having a car seat in his car and making bottles and changing diapers. It went against everything I knew about my brother.

  On the other hand, he practically raised me. We only had each other when our parents were drunk, or too busy cooking meth in the basement to bother to feed us. And then later when we shuffled from home to home.

  He was going to be a great father. I was sure Katie would step up and be a good mom, too. I bet getting knocked up wasn’t in her life plan, but if she could handle her father’s death like she had, then she could deal with a baby. Her sister was pregnant also, so they’d probably have a joint baby shower or something. She better have a girl, because she already had pink everything.

  I got my ass to class after giving Max a kiss and finally mustered up the courage to call Stryker in the afternoon when I had a break.

  “Hey, bro,” I said.

  “Well hello to you, my dear sister,” he said, his voice stiff.

  “Look, I was an asshole, okay? Do you want me to do the long apology and grovel and shit?” A girl walking by glared at me, probably for swearing, and I glared right back at her until she passed by.

  “Yeah, you were an asshole. This is a huge thing for me and you just bailed when I needed you to support me. I’m so scared I’m going to fuck this up, Trish. So fucking scared.” I could hear it in his voice. My brother didn’t get scared, like, ever, so this was serious.

  “I mean,” he continued, “how am I going to pay for this? There’s no room in this apartment for a baby. And what if it comes out and hates me? What if I don’t know what to do when it’s crying and I fuck it up and send it to therapy for the rest of its life?” I almost wanted to laugh at him.

  “Dude, calm down. I’m pretty sure every single father ever has had those same thoughts. You’re going to be fine. You’ll figure it out. You raised me and I turned out… well, I turned out. I’m alive and in college and that’s pretty damn amazing. And you’re not doing this alone. You have your girl. She’s strong. You’ll figure it out together.” There was no doubt in my mind when I saw them together, really together, that they were somehow meant for one another. They would work it out.

  He sighed.

  “I don’t even know what to do right now. I feel like I should go out and buy diapers or something. I didn’t want her to go to class today.”


  “Because what if she trips on the sidewalk and falls? What if she gets hurt? I’m fucking losing my mind right now because I’m not there with her.” Now that made me laugh. My overzealous, overprotective brother.

  “Why are you laughing at me? This is serious, Trish,” he said as I tried to stifle myself.

  “I’m sorry. You’re just worrying about being a dad and you pretty much already are one. You don’t need to change who you are. You’re already good at it.” I didn’t often give him praise, but he needed to hear it today.

  “That doesn’t stop me from freaking the fuck out,” he said.

  “Well, you’ll get over it eventually. How’s Katie? Has she told her mom yet?” I’d met Mrs. Hallman at the worst possible time, right after she’d lost her husband, and I didn’t have the best impression of her from what Katie had told me. Their relationship was getting better, but I didn’t know how this was going to go over.

  “Not yet. She wanted to go to the doctor to confirm and see how far along she is. The appointment is tomorrow.” Wow. This was getting serious. So adult. My brother was a grown-up.

  I wanted to ask him how it happened, but I didn’t think he’d tell me, so I didn’t bother.

  “You going to go with her, Daddy?” I said, needling him a little bit more.

  “Shut up, of course I am. And don’t call me that. It’s weird and a little creepy.” I rolled my eyes, which of course he couldn’t see.

  “Listen, could you do me a huge favor? I have a late lab tonight, so could you go over to my place and hang with Katie for a while? I just don’t want her to be alone right now. I keep imaging these horrible things happening to her.” Well, that was par for the course. Horrible things seemed to happen to Stryker and me.

  “Sure thing. As long as she doesn’t give me graphic pregnancy details.” I shuddered at the thought. I really didn’t need to know any of that crap.

  “I think you’re safe. And thanks, Trish.”

  “No prob, bro.” I hung up and smiled. Stryker and I fought, but we would always make up. There was nothing so terrible either of us could do that would harm our relationship.

  IT WORKED OUT, hanging out with Katie, because Max had to work. Again. This time he was working in the kitchen of one of the local pizza joints. He always came back smelling like pizza and it made me want to devour him, but I held off. I always held off.

  She was lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling when I let myself in.

  “You okay?” I asked and she turned her head and gave me a smile.

  “I guess? I’m not really sure.” She put her hands over her lower belly. “I seriously can’t believe there is a person inside me right now.”

  “Like a parasite,” I said, dropping my bags and crashing into one of the other chairs.

  “But a very cute parasite that I want to slay dragons for,” she said, looking down at her hands.

  “I bet you would.” Katie might look like a doe, but she was fierce as hell.

  Her wide brown eyes finally looked up to meet mine.

  “Did Stryker send you to babysit me?” she asked. I nodded, not even bothering to hide my motive for being there.

  She rolled her eyes and sighed, but there was a smile on her face.

  “That boy is going to lose his damn mind. I kid you not, he put a chair in the shower today. He was afraid I was going to slip and fall and impale myself.” We both burst out laughing and she sat up, shaking her head.

  “If I had any reservations about him being a dad, they’re already gone. He’s going to be amazing. It’s me I’m worried about,” she said, clasping her hands together.

  “Psh, you’re going to be fine. I mean, you take care of Stryker and he’s basically a baby, so what’s one more?” I was trying to make light of things, but she’d turned serious.

  “I just keep wondering what my dad would say. I mean,” she said, her voice breaking, “I’d like to think he’d be happy, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t. And I don’t know how to tell my mom. I really don’t.” She put her head in her hands and I heard a muffled sob.

  Shit. I was not good with this kind of stuff. Emotional stuff. But I got up from my chair and went to sit next to her, putting my arm gently around her.

  “You’ll figure it out. You don’t have to do it right now. I mean, you’ve got nine months before you definitely have to tell her. You could just say you’re getting fat in one particular area.” She giggled and the sound was a little snotty. I got her a tissue and she blew her nose.

  “I’m sorry for falling apart on you. I just didn’t want to do it front of Stryker because he’s already so stressed.” We sat on the couch for a while and then she got up to go to the bathroom. When she came back, I had the television on and had found a Law & Order marathon. That made her laugh again.

  “Thanks, Trish,” she said, leaning her head on my shoulder.

  “Anytime. Besides, you’re carrying my niece or nephew in there,” I said, pointing to her belly. She put her hand on it again. Of course it was still relatively flat under her shirt. Wouldn’t stay that way for long.

  “So crazy.”

  “I know.”

  TRISH SEEMED A lot calmer that night when she picked me up from work. I couldn’t afford a car on top of school, so she was my primary means of transportation.

  “How was your day?” I asked as I leaned back in the passenger seat. I just wanted to get in the shower so I could wash the smell of pizza off me and the sauce out from under my fingernails.

  “I made up with Stryker. And hung out with Katie for a while. They’re both freaking ou
t, but in different ways.” Yup, she was definitely more calm. I was relieved.

  She told me how Stryker had become seriously overprotective and Katie was worrying about telling her parents.

  “What’s she going to do about school?” I asked as she pulled into the parking lot of my dorm.

  “Don’t know yet. There’s only so much they can process at once and I don’t think they’ve gotten that far.”

  We went inside and did our homework. We could have gone to hang out with the rest of her friends, but she decided she had a lot of work she wanted to get done before she worked this weekend at the fabric store with Lottie.

  Yes, Trish was my girlfriend, but sometimes things between us felt completely platonic. I just kept hoping they would change. That one day she would open up and tell me why we couldn’t go past kissing. Why she wouldn’t let me touch her stomach or anything lower. Why we had to sleep in separate beds.

  I was still waiting. I would have been lying if I said I hadn’t thought about calling it off. But then I would look at her and I’d want to punch myself for even considering it. I wasn’t going to be that asshole.

  So I stayed. I stayed and I loved her at a distance. Because I did. Love her. She didn’t know and I’d tried to tell her a bazillion times, but the words always got caught in my throat and wouldn’t leave my mouth.

  She had her secrets, I had mine. And we tiptoed around them, walking on eggshells. It had worked so far, but sooner or later, something was going to crack.

  “Goodnight,” she said, giving me a chaste kiss on the mouth. She would never kiss me if the lights were out. I tried to keep the kiss going, but she broke away. I tried not to feel rejected and failed.

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