Together We Heal by Chelsea M. Cameron

  When we reached the bathroom, Katie was sitting on the floor breathing deeply and Stryker was hovering, as if he wasn’t sure what to do.

  “You doing okay?” I asked. She kept her eyes squeezed shut, but she flashed me a thumbs up.

  “I can make you some ginger tea or something.” Lottie was obsessed with tea and as a result of being her best friend, I knew there was a tea for every ailment. She had dozens of boxes and tins in her place downstairs.

  “Sure,” Katie said. Stryker looked pretty helpless, so Kayla came in and took over.

  “I’ll make you some too,” I said to her as she grabbed a rubber band off the sink to help Katie put her hair up. Good plan.

  I found Lottie and she came downstairs with me to brew the tea. It was so quiet down there compared to upstairs.

  “I can’t believe Katie’s planning for a wedding and a baby. I feel like it was just yesterday when she bounced into our dorm room and I wanted to punch her in the face,” Lottie said, filling the teakettle as I got out the mugs.

  “I know. I seriously thought I was going to hate her forever, but then she turned out to be more than meets the eye. A lot of people are like that,” I said. Lottie nodded.

  “As long as they’re weird though,” she pointed out. One of our first conversations ever was at work when we talked about weird people being the best kind.

  “Absolutely,” I agreed.

  “So, I’m glad we’re alone because I have to ask you something,” she said as the kettle heated up. Uh oh. She turned her bright blue eyes on me and I knew there was no escape.

  “What’s up with you and Max? I know you guys are super affectionate and stuff, but it’s different lately. Not different bad, just different. You seem to be happier and I was just wondering what was up,” she said in a rush. Lottie had this endearing habit of talking a ton, and talking really fast. It was hard to get used to at first, but now I found it just another one of her adorable quirks.

  “Um, well. I don’t know.” I didn’t really want to talk about it, but I could at least tell her a few things. “We just had a talk the other night and he told me that I don’t really trust him. Which is true. I have a hard time with that.” I stared down at the empty mugs. Lottie knew some stuff, but she didn’t know everything. Only Stryker knew everything, and it wasn’t because I wanted him to. If I could, I would have hidden a lot of it, because I could take it. I could handle it. I didn’t want it to damage him too.

  “That’s good. Trust is so important. I definitely didn’t trust Zan at first,” she said, and we both laughed at the understatement. Their love story was quite something. How she could go from hating Zan with every fiber in her being, to completely and totally loving him, I didn’t know. I guess that was just the power of those kinds of feelings.

  “Yeah, I guess you know what I’m talking about.” She nodded with a knowing smile.

  “Oh, yes. But then I had to decide what was more important. Protecting myself from him potentially hurting me, or letting myself fall in love with him. If I didn’t let go, I would have missed out on the best thing in my life. I don’t even want to think about how my life would be if I had walked away.” She shivered. I looked around their apartment. It was very different from Stryker’s, even though this one also had a banjo. The walls weren’t visible because they were covered in bookshelves that Simon had made. Some of them were still empty, but they were fast filling up with Lottie’s extensive collection. Zan had a few books too, and between them they had quite a library going on here.

  Black and white photographs were sprinkled here and there, another of Zan’s hobbies. Quite a few of them were of Lottie and they were absolutely beautiful.

  The kettle finally boiled and Lottie filled the mugs as I added the teabags. She found a little tray that we set the cups on.

  “It’s obvious that you care about each other. It’s obvious that you have something special. Just think about what it would be like if you lost him. Would that be better than letting yourself trust him?” I didn’t have the answer to that question.

  “Just something to think about,” she said as she picked up the tray.

  I WAS PRETTY happy that when I asked Trish what was wrong, instead of brushing me off she said we’d talk about it when we were alone. Cool, awesome. We were making progress.

  The celebration continued on for hours. A lot of people got pretty drunk, and Stryker cut off the booze supply so everyone could sober up before they went anywhere. He also offered his place to crash in, and Lottie and Zan seconded. Lottie was very strict when it came to drunk driving because of what had happened to her best friend, Lexie. She’d never recovered from her traumatic brain injury and was now in a facility in Texas getting more help. Lottie was devastated, but she knew it was for the best.

  Trish didn’t drink much, and I remained sober in just in case. Simon also stayed sober and offered to drive people home in trips, so that was what most of them did. Katie seemed to be suffering from some of the symptoms of pregnancy, but after some tea she came back out saying that she felt better. I didn’t really know much about pregnant women and I had to be honest that thinking about it kind of freaked me out.

  Trish was quiet as she drove us back to my place. I figured she was probably thinking about what to say when we got there. I wasn’t going to push her, but let her make the first move. I knew it wasn’t easy and I was willing to be patient.

  As soon as the door shut, she turned on me.

  “First, the fact that you love me, scares me. Second, I don’t know what I want to do with my life and that scares me. Third, I’m afraid that I’m not good at anything, so I’ll probably just end up as a waitress or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a waitress, but I want to do something with my life. My brother is this overachiever and I feel like I need to live up to that but I don’t know how. There you go.” She slammed the words at me, almost all at once like bullets. It was going to take me a second to absorb all that and formulate a response.

  “Okay, first, the fact that I love you scares me too. Second, you’ll figure it out. You’re only eighteen. There are millions of adults who don’t know what the fuck they want to do with their lives. It’s not against the law to not know what you want to do. Third, you are good at many things, but you don’t think you are. Your brother is a different person. He has different talents. You’re allowed to not be a carbon copy of him. I wouldn’t want you to be like him. I want you to be like you.” She watched me as I talked and I could tell she was turning my words over, deciding which ones to discard and which ones to take in and think about further. I hoped she would listen to me. Really listen.

  She sat down on the bed and patted the spot next to her.

  I joined her and waited for her verdict.

  “I really don’t want to be a waitress. I’d be so bad at it,” she finally said.

  “Okay then. We can cross that off the list of job possibilities.” That made her smile just a tiny bit.

  “Do you want me to do your hair?” she asked, looking at me through her eyelashes.

  “Yeah,” I said. So it wasn’t a long talk. She didn’t bare her entire soul to me. But it was a start.

  AN HOUR LATER, my scalp was burning from bleach and I had electric blue dye slathered on my head. Trish was going to do my hair first and then do hers.

  “You could be a hairdresser. You’re good at this.” She made a face at me.

  “Yeah, but most people want boring hairstyles. I would die if I had to do soccer mom haircuts all day.” Ugh, I could understand that. She definitely had a point.

  “Well, I have no idea what I want to do either, so we need to figure this out together.” I really liked that idea. Maybe we could do majors and careers that complimented each other. Not that I was thinking that far down the line, but it was something to ponder.

  “I don’t know,” she said, walking around and checking the color on my hair. She wore gloves so she didn’t stain her hands. Tonight I’d have
to put a dark pillowcase on my pillow so I didn’t stain it. The joys of having non-normal colored hair.

  “One thing is for sure, I don’t want to get knocked up.”

  “Ever?” I asked. Trish and I never talked about this stuff.

  “Never. Can you imagine me being a mom? I’d be horrible at it. The thing would cry and I’d probably get up and leave. I’m nervous enough as it is at the thought of being an aunt. I know I’m going to get roped into babysitting and that is totally going to suck.” I thought she was being too hard on herself, as usual. She was going to be fine with her niece or nephew. Thinking about her with a baby made me smile a little.

  “Do you want to have kids?” she asked.

  “I have no idea. Haven’t really thought about it. I was always focusing on getting to college and then I’d go from there.” As soon as I knew what college was, I knew I wanted to go. It had been my dream from when I was very young and my dad would tell me how I was going to join him in business one day. He even got me t-shirts with his business logo on them when I was growing up. I still had a few of them in my drawers.

  “Whatever. I don’t know why I’m even talking about this.” She snapped her gloves off and threw them in the trash. “You’re good to go.” I got up and headed for the shower to rinse out the color. When I came back, she was busy with the bleach bottle on her roots.

  “We can talk about that kind of stuff. Even if it’s just to say that we don’t know what we’re doing. I like hearing about what you want in the future.” It helped me try to picture a future with her in it.

  “I don’t like to talk about the future. I just like to live in the moment,” she said.

  “That’s good too. I guess I’m just saying that if you want to talk about kids, or not having kids, or your feelings on marriage, that’s not going to scare me. I know you’re not the kind of girl who’s secretly pinning wedding ideas on Pinterest while her boyfriend sleeps.” That made her snort.

  “No, I’m definitely not. I bet Katie is now, though. I hope she doesn’t become one of those bridezillas. I could not take that.” Katie could be enthusiastic about things, but I didn’t think she’d get to that level.

  “When are they getting married?”

  “In the summer I think. She doesn’t want to be fat when she walks down the aisle.” Couldn’t blame her there.

  Trish finished with the bleach and I opened the window, even though it was still freezing outside. I was getting high off the fumes.

  I unwrapped the towel from my shoulders and squeezed out the excess water from the ends of my hair. There was still a tiny bit of blue dye, but that would be normal for the next few days. I was used to it.

  “Can we talk about something non-serious now? All this future talk is giving me a headache.” It was probably the bleach, but I kept my mouth shut.

  “Sure.” I asked her if she wanted to go on a date with me. She stared at me like I’d lost my mind.

  “What? We are dating, but we hardly ever actually go out on real dates. We hang out here, or at the library, or with your brother and The Band. I’d like to go out and do something, just the two of us.” Her mouth gaped a little.

  “Or maybe not.”

  “Uh, no. Yeah, we can go on a date.” I felt kind of horrible that I didn’t make more of an effort to take her out and do fun things with her. Maybe that would be a good way to get her to open up.

  “As long as it’s not like a fancy restaurant or something. I would be so uncomfortable.” Ditto. We weren’t really fancy restaurant people. We went to Caroline’s, the fanciest restaurant around, but only in a group and we always got nasty looks from the other patrons and staff.

  “Deal. Besides, I don’t want us to just do the traditional dates like we read them from some sort of dating handbook. No plain dinners and movies for us.” She smiled and looked excited at the prospect of going out. Who knew?

  AFTER I WASHED out my hair, I put it up in a towel and called Katie in a panic while I was in the girls’ bathroom. Hopefully Max would just think I was doing an extra-thorough washing job.

  “Hello?” It wasn’t super late, but she sounded like she might have been sleeping.

  “Hey, it’s Trish. I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

  “No, no. I was just resting my eyes. Which sounds like something my Grampa Jack would say. Ugh. I feel like I’m a million years old and I’m not even close to being done with this pregnancy.” She sighed, but I knew what I was about to say was going to perk her right up.

  “I need your help.”

  “Uh huh, with what?”

  “What you’ve been dreaming of since you met me. I need you to doll me up. Max and I are going on a date and I want to surprise him.” She made that high-pitched squealing excited noise and I had to hold the phone away from my ear. God, I didn’t know how her vocal chords could survive making that sound on a regular basis.

  “Oh my God, oh my God!” I heard Stryker freaking out in the background, asking if there was something wrong with the baby.

  “No, I’m fine. Trish finally asked me if I would do a makeover on her.” He responded, but I couldn’t hear what he said. It was probably something snarky, knowing him.

  “Look, I’m not going to let you dye my hair, or cover my tattoos, or make me take out any of my piercings.” I had quite a number of them and I wore them in different combinations every day. Sometimes it was an eyebrow ring day, sometimes it was a lip ring plus nose ring day. I always had numerous bits of metal in my ears. It just made me feel more interesting and fun.

  “Trish. Do you have any faith in me at all? I’m not going to change you. I’m only going to enhance what is already there and pump it up a little bit. You’ll still be you, only just a little more fabulous.” I’d seen her makeovers on Lottie and she’d done a hell of a one on herself. She was so much cooler with pink streaks in her hair and wearing her black-rimmed glasses.

  “I just wanted to make sure that we were clear.”

  “Clear as a bell. When do you want to do it? Could you come shopping with me next week? I need to buy some new jeans so that when my stomach gets bigger I don’t have to wear gross muumuu dresses.” I could never see her in one of those. Even if she wore one, though, she’d look fantastic. Katie would look good in anything.

  Me, not so much.

  “Yeah, I think I can swing it. Just let me know when you want to go and we’ll figure out a time.”

  “Awesome! Oh, I’m so excited.” Glad she was. I was regretting the idea as soon as I hung up with her. But she’d promised she was just going to enhance what I already had. Whatever that meant.

  MIRACLE OF MIRACLES, I got used to Max spending the night with me. I didn’t think it was possible, but it happened. I even liked waking up in the morning and seeing his smiling face, puffy eyes and ruffled hair. I always woke up first and I’d lay there and wait for his eyes to open. The second they did, he would focus on my face and a slow smile would spread on his lips. It was literally the best part of my day.

  He wouldn’t stop bugging me about our date. Apparently, I was required to help him come up with what we were going to do.

  “Isn’t the guy supposed to plan this?” I said the third time he asked me.

  “I don’t know, but the last thing I want is to get you somewhere and then have you hate it and be grumpy the whole time. Even though you’re super cute when you’re grumpy. You get all frowny right here,” he said poking the spot on my forehead right between my eyes. I jerked away and smacked his finger.

  “Don’t poke my face. Just because you’re my boyfriend, doesn’t give you permission to poke my face. That’s not how this works.”

  “Well, then I don’t know if I want to keep dating if I’m not allowed to do that,” he said, keeping his face serious. What a dork. I bit back a smile and just shook my head at him.

  I WAS HALF-hoping that Katie would be too busy with everything to have time for our little makeover sesh, but she called me saying that she had time Wedne
sday afternoon and I didn’t have a good enough excuse to say no. Damn. Really, it was inevitable that I would get a makeover eventually, being Katie’s friend. It was just a thing she did.

  I picked her up at the apartment and she was smiling so hard I thought she was going to break her face.

  “You have no idea how much I’ve been looking forward to this ever since we met,” she said, shutting the door and then putting on her seatbelt.

  “Because I so clearly need a makeover,” I said, rolling my eyes at her.

  “No, because I want to give literally everyone a makeover when I first meet them. You’re not special.” I laughed and she turned on the radio. You’d think, looking at her in her jeans and soft pink top and dark pink jacket that she’d listen to insipid pop music. Nope. She had better taste than most and I smiled when she found the alt. rock station and started singing along. Katie had a great voice. It was sort of deep and husky. It sounded like sex and cigarettes. No wonder my brother fell in love with her.

  “So, what are we thinking? Do you want to go casual, or more dressy?” Katie peppered me with questions and her energy was so intense I wanted to pull over and tell her to calm the fuck down.

  I’d thought pregnant women were supposed to be like, more mellow or wise or something. She just seemed like she’d turned up her personality about five thousand notches. It was a bit much.

  When we got the mall, I found a parking spot and we got out. Katie started listing the stores we were going to hit, starting with one that sold lacy underwear and bras for women who wanted to impress their husbands on Valentine’s Day.

  “Hell no, Katie. Hell fucking no,” I said. A woman walking by gave me a dirty look. I hated people who were so uptight about cursing. Seriously, get the fuck over it.

  “Oh come on. You have to start somewhere. It’s best to go from the bottom to the top. And the bottom is undies.” She grabbed my arm and she was surprisingly strong. I didn’t want to harm her by fighting, so I let her drag me to the store of doom.

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