See, Dylan and I – we were best friends. Or at least we had been, until that one night, almost one year ago. He had been dating my fraternal twin sister at that time – sassy, cheerful, light-up-the-room-when-she-walks-in Talia. We both had the same green eyes, but that was all we shared. While my hair was dark and slightly wavy, hers was dark blonde with curls that sprang up no matter how much she tried to comb them down. In short, she looked just like our mother, which had made her Mum's favourite. She was also about two inches shorter, one size thinner, and always got the boy she wanted. And that boy, at that time, had been Dylan. It didn't matter that he had been my best friend, my first love.
But no, I wasn't being fair to her.
Talia was far from a bitch. That was what pained me the most. I was the bitchier one, out of the two of us. She was so nice – everyone had loved her, including me. She had been the best sister anyone could've asked for. To this day, I believe that if I had told her about my feelings for Dylan, she would've stepped back. She was sacrificial like that. But I hadn't told her. She'd even asked me – she'd flounced into my room one day and asked, a little nervously, about my relationship with Dylan. I'd pretended to be impassive and emphasised that we were just friends. Then she'd divulged, almost shyly, that she had the greatest crush on him. She'd asked if I was okay with her confessing her feelings to him. And I'd said the three words I'd eventually come to regret: "Go for it."
She'd gone for it. As Dylan's best friend, I'd known even before I'd walked in on them kissing in the kitchen what the outcome would have been. It had been around the seventh grade when Dylan had started to look like a deer in headlights whenever Talia's name came up in conversation, or when she'd walked past the open door to my room when he'd been over. I'd known that he had been crazy about her, even though we'd never talked about it. And when I'd walked in on them kissing in the kitchen, Dylan pressing her up against the refrigerator like he could no longer hold himself back, my heart had already been shattered by that prior knowledge.
After they'd started dating, I'd tried to distance myself from both of them. That had turned out to be near impossible. For one thing, living in the same house as Talia had meant that I'd always – always – seen them together. Talia was my sister. It had been impossible to avoid her. Avoiding Dylan had been marginally easier, but he, like Talia, had worried about leaving me out. They never had caught on that I would have preferred to have been left out. I'd tried to slip away whenever I could've, but had had to suffer through several outings with them. Several more than I'd ever wanted in this lifetime. It'd felt like been stabbed in the chest by a million shards – the shattered pieces of my own heart, probably – every time I'd had to see them holding hands or sneaking in kisses when they'd thought I wasn't watching. I had been, and it had been hell.
And then there was that night, near the end of the summer before senior year of high school.
They had been dating for fourteen months by then, and still going strong. There had been a party. We'd all gone together, but I'd broken away from them the first chance I had. Then I'd proceeded to go nuts, mixing brandy with tequila, whisky with vodka. I'd been so out of it, I probably would've danced naked atop a table if Dylan hadn't found me and dragged me out of the crowd. It was all a blur. I had no idea what had happened, exactly. The next I knew, I'd been waking up in a hospital bed with my parents, red-eyed and pale, by my side. Dylan had also been there, sitting in a corner away from my parents. I hadn't known what had happened, and why Dylan had been sitting almost lifelessly by the window, dull blue eyes shuttered, until I'd croaked, "Where's Talia?" and my mother had broken down crying.
Later, much later, Dylan had stiltedly told me the whole story. He and Talia had argued. Dylan had been sick of my attitude, as he had put it, but Talia had stuck up for me. Eventually, Talia had stormed off, dragging me along, even though she'd been frustrated with me herself. Dylan had watched her pile me into the car and then drive off, all the while knowing he should've offered to drive us both, because Talia was reckless when she was angry. And she had been furious that night. Instead, he had watched her screech off into the night before returning to the party and proceeding to get angrily drunk. He'd only found out the next day that Talia – and I – had gotten into a car accident. The car had veered off the road and straight into a wall by the roadside. Miraculously, I'd gotten off with only a few broken ribs, a broken nose and a concussion, but Talia's heart had stopped by the time the paramedics had arrived. She hadn't been wearing her seatbelt and the impact of the crash had jolted her forward and upward, slamming her head against the windshield. Then her airbag had deployed with a rush of air that had acted like a hard punch that had barrelled through her abdomen and snapped her spine. I'd been saved because she'd had to strap me in to stop me from rolling off the car seat while she drove.
After Talia's death, Dylan and I had stopped speaking to each other altogether. I suppose seeing me had reminded him too much of her. We were twin sisters, after all. The similarities had been few, but they had been there. I had the exact same eyes that she'd had.
To be honest, I hadn't wanted to see him either. We hadn't been that close since he and Talia had started dating. I think he'd seen my efforts to avoid him and Talia as proof that I'd been jealous – either of him for taking my sister away, or of Talia for taking my best friend away – and he'd had no patience for it. That had probably contributed to the fight they'd had the night Talia died. I blamed myself wholeheartedly, and I knew that Dylan probably blamed me too. He hadn't so much as glanced in my direction at the funeral, just stood in the back, head down, jaw clenched – looking in all the world like he'd lost the love of his life.
Maybe he had.
You'd be surprised at how easy it was to avoid someone who lived just two houses down and went to the same grade at school. The first time I'd seen Dylan after the funeral was two months later. I'd been out jogging at night, trying to drown my misery in music and the rhythmic pounding of my footsteps, and he'd been drowning himself in beer on his porch when I'd gone past. I almost hadn't stopped, but the sight of him had sent such a surge of emotion within me that I'd yanked the ear buds out and stomped up to confront him. And that was when I'd seen his impassive mask break. He'd railed, blamed, shouted and cried. I'd done the same right back. And then all of a sudden, we'd been pressed against each other, kissing almost brutally. We'd kissed like we had been trying to hurt each other, to vent that anger and regret festering deep within each of us. Then he'd pushed me away and stumbled back into the house without even a word of apology, slamming the door in his wake.
All thoughts of running having flown clean out of my mind from that first touch, I'd trudged back home and cried myself to sleep.
A week had passed before we'd run into each other again. This time, it had been at the café at the beach, the one I now worked at. I hadn't been working there yet, back then. I'd only been there to get a quick sandwich when he'd walked in with some of his friends, friends that I also knew. He'd looked so out of place, the only unsmiling one in the group of joking high-school boys. He'd seen me almost immediately, but had looked away just as quickly once our gazes touched. I'd clenched my teeth together and prepared to leave. He probably would've ignored me completely had his friends not seen me and crowded over to say hi. They were my friends, too, even though I wasn't half as close to them as I'd been to Dylan.
"Where have you been?" Reid had asked, nudging me playfully. "It's like you dropped right off the face of Earth."
"I've been… around," I'd said uncomfortably. I'd been very conscious of Dylan standing outside of the circle Reid, Caleb and Ryan had formed around me. And I was also hoping to hell that none of the guys would bring up Talia.
"How are you, Tara?" It had been Ryan's turn to ask quietly. He had always been the most sensitive one in the group.
I'd tried to smile. "Fine."
"I'll go order," Dylan had said abruptly then, breaking away and making his way to the counter without a single glance at me.
A moment of silence had come over the guys as they'd exchanged glances over the top of my head.
"He's just being an ass," Caleb had offered, not even going to pretend that it hadn't happened.
"I should go," I'd muttered, trying to push past them.
Ryan had laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. "If there's anything…"
That had made me smile, albeit a little grudgingly. "Thanks, guys."
Caleb had stepped back to let me pass, but Reid had held out a hand to stay me. "Hey," he'd pitched his voice lower even though there had been no need to, considering the fact that Dylan had probably had no interest in our conversation, "we're throwing a party for Dyl on his birthday. You should come."
I'd stared at him, wondering if he'd been blind to the obvious snub Dylan had delivered earlier on. "I don't think he would appreciate me showing up."
"Just come," Reid had been adamant. Ryan had given him a look, but Reid had shrugged unapologetically.
"I'll think about it," I'd promised half-heartedly, having already decided to do nothing of that sort.
At 3:27 A.M. on the third of November, I'd found myself walking two doors down with a wrapped box in my hand. I'd wrestled with myself all night long before hopping out of bed and sneaking out into the chilly night before I could lose my nerve. The front door to Dylan's house had been left ajar but the house quiet, which probably meant that the last of the party-goers had just left. There had been no response when I'd knocked, so I'd simply pushed open the door and walked in.
Dylan had been the only one there, sitting on the arm of the couch in a way that couch arms weren't meant to be sat on, staring blankly at the empty glass bottles at his feet. The rest of the living room – from what I'd seen – had been surprisingly clean. The guys had probably helped to clean up after the party. The empty bottles scattered beside the couch must have been the remnants of Dylan's own pity party, most likely started after the others had left.
I'd stood silently by the door, waiting for him to raise his head and notice me. After several long minutes when he'd seemed content to just sit there and continue staring into space, I'd stalked up to him and dropped the present in his lap.
He'd jerked like he'd just been rudely made aware of my presence in his house. Then he'd blinked several times, as if to pull himself out of the drunken haze the bottles of beer had sent him into. I'd seen the exact moment his gaze had sharpened and settled on me. "What," he'd drawled rudely, even as his eyes had flicked over me. "Are you my birthday present?"
"You're an asshole, Dylan," I'd retorted, without any real heat, before gesturing at the box he was now holding in one hand. "No. That is."
He'd stared at wrapped box, as if not knowing what to do with it. "You got me a present?" He'd asked, his voice softening. I'd had to take a deep breath before replying, because in that moment, he'd sounded so much like the old Dylan – my Dylan – that I'd wished I had brought him a present.
"No," I'd squeezed past the tears in my throat to wheeze. My voice had come out in nothing louder than a whisper. "It's from Talia." I'd found it in her closet the day before, when one of our past conversations had suddenly come back to me. She'd been worrying over what to get Dylan for his birthday, and I'd suggested the automatic chronograph watch that he'd been wanting for a long time but had never gotten around to saving for. We'd gone out that very day to pick it out together. I'd made fun of her for buying the present four months early, but she'd just laughed and said, "I want everything to be perfect for his birthday! He only turns eighteen once, you know."
The pain had come flooding back at this memory. I'd bitten my lip, hard, to distract myself from the threat of tears.
Dylan had frozen in shock; the next moment, he'd swung his hand back and the box had flown across the room and bounced off the door before clattering to a stop – ironically – beside the empty beer bottles at his feet. "Fuck you," he had grated, making no effort to moderate the angry hurt in his voice. He'd leapt off the couch and turned his back on me. When I'd seen him lift his hand to move it in a tell-tale swiping motion across his face, I'd looked away and bent down to pick up the present.
"She wanted you to have it," I'd said, starting to cry myself. "She bought it way early, in July. She wanted your birthday to be…" Perfect. I hadn't been able to say it.
He'd known anyway. He'd turned back around and stared at me, eyes red but dry. Then he'd slowly made his way over to me, walking like someone wading through thick swamp mud in a desperate attempt to get to shore. He'd laid his fingers on the box in my hand, and whispered, "What is it?"
"A Tissot Seastar 1000," I'd croaked.
His fingers had fallen away. "She knew," he'd muttered under his breath, managing to sound awed and pained all at once. I'd decided, in that split second, to never tell him that it hadn't been her idea – that it had been mine.
Because I'd looked into his red-rimmed eyes, into the raw grief swirling with the blue of his irises, and I'd known. He really had loved her. He'd loved her in that reckless, uncontrollable way that youths loved, and even though he might have grown out of it in the years to come, it was also equally likely that love could have stabilised into something more, something greater – something that could've seen them living out the rest of their lives 'happily ever after', if only she'd lived. If I hadn't gotten myself so drunk that night. If they hadn't argued. If he'd worked past his anger and offered to drive us home. If she hadn't been so worked up that she'd forgotten to buckle herself in.
If only that night hadn't happened.
His eyes had fallen closed, and I hadn't been able to tell if they'd been wet, because my sight had been distorted by my own tears. I'd tried to push the box – now looking a little worse for the wear – into his hands so that I could get out of his house and back to the sanctuary of my own room, where I could curl up and rehash every single 'what if' and wish I'd been the one to die instead.
He hadn't taken the present, but he'd wrapped his hand around my wrist and yanked me to him. For the second time that night, the gift-wrapped box had fallen to the floor. The moment his arms had wrapped around me, I'd latched on and started to bawl hopelessly. A part of me had been mortified, but another part – the larger part – had known that it had been inevitable. These tears had been a long time coming.
I didn't know how long we'd stood there, in each other's arms, me trying to cry silently but failing miserably, and him – I had a vague idea that he'd been crying as well, but he'd made not a single sound. Eventually, when my sobs had subsided, I'd pulled away and tilted my head back to look him in the eye. His eyes, too, had been wet. My hand had drifted up, of its own volition, to wipe the wetness away. He'd reached up and grabbed my hand, stilling it.
"Is this the part where you push me away and slam the door?" I'd whispered, my voice hoarse from the crying fit earlier. I'd been referring to that incident a week prior, when we'd kissed and he'd practically shut the door in my face.
He'd known what I'd been talking about, even without any further elaboration on my part. He'd let out a little sigh. "I'm sorry. That was rude."
It had been more than rude, but I hadn't quibbled. It was such a rare event in those days, getting a direct apology from Dylan, that I had been a little surprised. I'd stared at him, and he'd stared back, something flickering at the back of that impassive blue of his gaze. There'd been a little pause in which we'd both reflected on what had happened that day.
"Why…?" I'd asked then, pushing out that one word because I'd been unable to frame the question in exact wording. To do so would've felt more like a betrayal to Talia's memory than it had been already. It had been something that had sprung up in the heat of the moment, when anger had mixed with guilt and relief and grief and blame and then it had all exploded and instinct had taken over, the pull too hard to ignore. It hadn't been a pleasant kiss – it had been one full of teeth and blood, one that had meant to hurt. It had seemed like the only way to communicate at a time when words had seemed like such cheap imitations of what we'd been feeling. But I'd wanted to know if he'd had a better explanation for it.
He hadn't. "I don't know."
We hadn't broken eye contact, but now his gaze had been different. Harsher, darker. It had been as if something in the air had subtly shifted and uncoiled. Like watching a car crash happen in slow motion, I'd known what had been about to happen and had been unable to stop it. Unable to have wanted to stop it. There was no knowing who'd closed the gap first, or if we'd both leaned in simultaneously – and anyway it hadn't mattered. The truth was that we'd somehow ended up kissing – again – and it had been nothing like the first.
This kiss had been slow, comforting, and so gentle that it had brought tears back into my eyes.
"Don't cry," he'd murmured, leaning his forehead against mine and letting his eyes flutter shut. His dark eyelashes had been short spikes against his skin, clumped together from the wetness. I'd closed my eyes and held on, my heart full with a mixture of emotions that I hadn't been able to name. With his face so close to mine, I could feel – and hear – his every exhalation. As I'd stood there, listening to him breathe, feeling every short burst of air rasp against my skin, I'd felt a need so deep, so strong that it had threatened to choke me – the need to feel alive, to know that I'd still lived, that I hadn't been the one buried six feet underground… because sometimes that was what it had felt like.
What did it mean to be alive? How could I ever know?
"I hate it," I'd whispered. He hadn't asked what it had been that I'd hated.
"I know," he'd whispered back. I'd opened my eyes and seen in his that he'd understood completely. He'd been the only one who understood my pain.
And it had been that knowledge that had changed everything between us.
Drawn by the need to be, the need to feel – I'd taken a step forward, boldly pressing our bodies together. He'd stilled, his hands falling away from where they'd been on my waist. I could've sworn he'd even stopped breathing as well; he'd been that still. I'd fancied, offhandedly, that if I'd listened closely, I could almost hear the gears of his mind screeching to a complete halt.
His body, however, had reacted almost at once.
Acting quickly so that I wouldn't have given myself time to think, I'd slipped my hands underneath his shirt and looked up at him, the unspoken question in my gaze.
"Tara," he'd breathed. I'd felt his heartbeat beneath my fingers – a quick, indistinct flutter. But it had been proof of the blood moving in his veins, his aliveness, and I'd found it comforting.
I'd known that if I let him have time to think, to remember Talia, I would lose him. "Don't think," I'd ordered softly, leaning up to capture his lips, as well as any other words of protest he might've had. Then I'd started unbuttoning his shirt.
"I don't want to think anymore," he'd admitted in a pain-filled voice uncharacteristic of him when we'd broken apart for air.
"Don't think," I'd repeated. By this time, his shirt had been fully open and I'd pressed my hand against his chest, right over his heart. "Feel."
He'd placed a hand over mine and for a moment I'd thought that he would've pulled away. But then he'd grabbed my waist and pitched us forward such that we'd fallen onto the couch, with me pinned under him. I'd been able to feel his erection through the bulge in his jeans, and his hands had suddenly been moving all over, touching, caressing…
And so – on the day after his eighteenth birthday, close to three months after my sister had died driving me home, I'd slept with her boyfriend.
I'd heard about comfort sex, about the overwhelming desire to reaffirm life after losing a loved one to death, but had always scoffed at the notion. "It's just another excuse to have sex," I'd told Talia sceptically, back when we'd discussed the topic. "You can't be sure," she'd argued. "The human mind has odd ways of dealing with trauma." And I could now fully appreciate the irony of our positions on the issue.
We had done it because we had both been falling apart at the seams. Ironically, what was supposed to have helped piece us back together had only served to break us further. The guilt and regret had set in even before Dylan had pushed himself off me and disappeared into the kitchen to get rid of the condom. I'd known he wouldn't be back.
Neither of us had said a word, and I had no idea what he'd been feeling, because I hadn't been able to look him in the eye. When he'd left the room, I'd curled up on the couch and crammed a fist into my mouth, blinking back tears. How could I have done this to Talia? She had been my sister – still was; death didn't just end a relationship like so many people seemed to think it did. Except it had become increasingly clear that I'd never read the sister's codebook, because I'd done everything wrong.
When I'd left Dylan's house that day, in the wee hours of the morning, pulling the door shut behind me, I'd fully expected to never have seen him again. After all, if he'd ignored me because of a kiss one week ago, it would've made sense had he moved out of the country to avoid me after we'd slept together. I'd been understandably surprised, then, when I'd heard the pebbles pinging off my windows in the middle of the night the next day.
I'd opened the window and looked down to see Dylan standing on the lawn below. My room was on the second storey of the house, and it had been his habit to throw pebbles at my window until he'd gotten my attention. But that had all been back when we'd been best friends, before he'd started dating Talia and before she'd died and we'd become strangers overnight.
He'd almost sent another pebble sailing in my direction before he'd realised that I'd been leaning out the window, watching him. "Oh," he'd said, lowering his hand but not releasing the pebble in his hand just yet. "Hey. Let me in."
It had seemed so much like one of our past interactions that I'd fallen into my old role without even thinking. By the time I'd returned to my senses, I'd already been downstairs and opening the front door for him. After letting him in, I'd stood by the door and asked, warily, "Why are you here?"
He'd shoved his hands into his pockets and regarded me guardedly. He'd been uncomfortable coming over, I'd realised then. I'd been living there for so long that it hadn't struck me that others would've seen it as Talia's house, as well. "Let's go to your room," he'd said, keeping his voice low so that the sound wouldn't travel much. "We'll wake your parents."
I'd snorted. "Not like anyone's going to care," I'd muttered, but turned to lead him up the stairs. If he'd been confused by my comment, he'd kept his curiosity to himself. Or maybe he just hadn't cared enough to ask.
In my room, I'd closed the door and taken my usual seat on the bed when I'd seen him grimace and look away. Then I'd realised what the bed had reminded him of, even though we hadn't technically done it on a bed. Swallowing uncomfortably, I'd repeated my question. "Why are you here?" Left unsaid was the fact that he'd not been in my room alone with me for a long time now. He'd known that Talia had been insecure about the closeness of our friendship back then, and had striven to never do anything to foster those insecurities. In a way, he'd been as much to blame for the deterioration of our friendship as I had been. Talia hadn't made him choose, but he'd chosen all on his own. He'd been one of those guys who'd chosen his girlfriend over his best friend from childhood. He had been the perfect boyfriend.
And he had been, from the day they'd started dating, irrevocably hers.
"I could've come in by the tree… but then I'd have to go through Talia's room…" He'd obviously been stalling, saying the first thing that had come to mind, that he'd thought I'd known all along, but I had been stupefied by that piece of news.
"The tree outside Talia's window?" I'd been horrified at the thought that he'd been sneaking into Talia's room during their year of dating and I hadn't known. Then I'd shaken my head, deciding that I hadn't wanted to know. "Never mind."
He'd swung around to look at me, surprise making him forget all about the awkwardness of seeing me perched on a bed. "You didn't…?"
"No," I'd said, a little more sharply than was warranted. "Talia didn't tell me everything."
The mention of Talia had subdued him. He'd paced in agitation to the window, which I'd closed before heading down to let him in, and stood there silently.
I'd quickly been running out of patience with him. "If you have something to say, Dylan, just spit it out. Or leave. I don't care."
"Look…" He'd sighed and run a hand through his hair, causing a few locks to stand up messily. I'd stared at them, wanting to smooth them down but knowing that I had to keep my distance. "About last night…"
And I'd waited – waited for him to say what a mistake it had been, to make excuses for what we'd done, to blame it all on me for propositioning him when he'd been drunk on grief – all things that I'd turned in my head over and over until I'd been dizzy with it. What had come out of his mouth next, however, had been none of those.
"Are you okay?" He'd asked, and I'd had to wonder if I'd looked odd or been fidgeting or in any way showing my inner distress outwardly, before I'd realised that that had been it. It had been what he'd been about to say about what had happened the night before.
An almost-hysterical laugh had escaped my lips before I could've swallowed it back. Was I okay? I'd barely remembered when I had last felt 'okay'.
His hands had found their way back into his pockets again, and his eyes had been shadowed. "Last night," he'd begun, but there had been a waver in his voice and he's trailed off. When I'd made no move to break the silence, he'd closed his eyes briefly as if pained.
I hadn't understood why he'd shown up to drag out this post-mortem. "It was a mistake. The end," I'd said flatly.
"It shouldn't have happened," he'd agreed, looking away.
Watching him, I'd thought back to the empty bottles I'd seen gathered at his feet last night. I'd somehow forgotten that he must've drunk them all before I'd shown up. He'd seemed sober enough. Out of his mind with grief, but sober enough. Something in my chest had squeezed painfully. I'd known then, without a doubt, that he wouldn't have slept with me if he'd been fully sober.
Finally, his eyes had met mine. We'd stared at each other for a moment, before he'd whispered in an unmistakably pained tone, "Shit."
That one word had summed up everything that could've been said right then. There had been no excuse for what we'd done.
That one word, on top of the guilt that I'd betrayed by sister's memory that I'd been battling all day, had been too much for me to handle all of a sudden, and I'd reacted by bursting into tears. He'd paled immediately. He'd crossed the room in two strides and reached out to me, before snatching his hands back like he hadn't known if he should've been touching me.
I'd been crying so hard that I'd begun hiccupping. When I'd shaken my head, he'd taken it to mean that I hadn't wanted him near and he'd taken a step back. He hadn't said anything, just stood a foot away and watched me cry. I'd pressed the balls of my palms against my eyes, trying to stop the shuddering sobs.
He'd rubbed at his face with his hands, exhaling loudly. I'd watched, through the tears, at him moving towards my desk. Then I'd remembered what was there and held my breath for so long that my tears had dried up.
Then he'd stilled and I'd known that he had seen it. He'd been frozen for a moment, before lifting his hand to touch Talia's smiling face in the photograph that I'd stuck on the wall after she had died. I wasn't much of a photograph person; I'd never been one of those people who'd plastered photographs of my friends all over the walls of my room. But when she'd died, I'd dug out an old photograph I'd had of the both of us – thirteen, our arms slung over each other's shoulders, grinning widely into the camera. Us against the world. My twin sister. My other half. And I'd betrayed her one of in the worst ways possible.
Dylan's fingers had caressed her image with such loving tenderness that I'd had to look away. I loved my sister – I really had, I really did – but seeing her have what I'd wanted, even in death… It had hurt with the pain of a thousand burning feathers, a thousand plummets to earth. And I'd thought my heart couldn't have shrivelled even more.
"I'm sorry," I'd said softly. The words had just escaped, together with my next breath. And I had been sorry. I'd been sorry that I'd betrayed Talia; I'd been sorry that I'd slept with her boyfriend, but most of all, I'd been sorry that I'd forced him to shoulder the pain of knowing he had betrayed her memory. But I couldn't have said, with a hundred percent certainty, that I wouldn't have done it again, even if time-travel and second chances had been possible. I wouldn't have given up that one time with Dylan for anything – almost anything.
And that had been the worst betrayal of all.
Dylan hadn't looked away from the photograph, but his hand had dropped back to his side. He'd clenched his fist for a moment, then, with palpable effort, torn his eyes away from Talia and turned back to face me. He'd stared at me for a long time, maybe mentally cataloguing the physical differences between Talia and me, maybe thinking about what had happened last night, maybe wondering how different life would be if it had been Talia who'd been in front of him, instead of me. Or maybe he just hadn't been thinking about anything at all. "No," he'd said finally, "I'm sorry." As he'd stood by my desk, staring at me, while I'd stared silently back, I'd wondered what had happened to us that we'd come to here and now, to this – standing across the room, apologising stiltedly, barely able to stand the sight of each other because it had reminded us too much of what had happened.
And then I'd remembered. Love had happened. Talia had happened. From the age of fourteen, I'd known that he'd had his heart set on her. He'd been my best friend. She'd been my twin sister. And that had been why I'd had my heart set on forgetting.
I'd discovered that I'd been wringing my hands together nervously. I'd forced myself to stop. My heart had begun hammering away inside my ribcage, remembering how it had been. How right. And how so very wrong.
"I guess… I guess you should go," I'd croaked finally, because the restlessness and anxiety had been creeping up while we'd stood there, in the same room, but as mentally far apart as strangers. The tight, hollow feeling had spread in my chest, and if he'd stayed any longer, the events of the previous night would've been re-enacted.
Perhaps he'd known. "I guess I should," he'd acquiesced, too easily to not have been feeling the same crawling need that I'd had. And with one last look in the direction of my desk, he'd been gone.
I'd waited until I'd heard the front door click shut, before heading downstairs myself to latch the door after him.
Our unspoken, mutual avoidance had lasted for almost a month after that. Then I'd gone to Mallory Knight's party – the first I'd been to since Talia's death – and Dylan had been there. I'd melted into a corner, where I'd stayed half the night, surreptitiously watching him nursing a beer on the couch. He'd had a lot of acquaintances, people who'd come up to him and spoken for a little while before his surliness had sent them on their way for better company. I'd known how he'd felt; it had felt like the crowd had been closing in on me, the air in the house being replaced with vacuum bit by bit. Everywhere I'd looked, everything I'd looked at, had had traces of that party that late summer's night – the night Talia had flown out of the windshield and snapped her neck and never opened those vibrant green eyes, never smiled, never barged into my room for no reason at all, never lit up a room by walking in – ever again. The claustrophobia had kicked in and I hadn't realised I'd been crying soundless tears until I'd seen the drop of wetness fall into the cup I'd been holding. Then I'd looked up and instinctively sought out Dylan. He'd been looking straight at me.
We'd barely made it out to his car. It had been his car because it had been nearer, plus I'd been too distraught to remember where I'd parked or where I'd put my keys. My tears had slowly dried up as we'd both fallen haphazardly onto the backseat, lips fused, limbs entwined, fingers fumbling at reticent buttons. Then it had just been skin on skin, heartbeat against heartbeat, and I'd closed my eyes and tried to forget everything else except the sound of his breathing against my ear.
After that, we'd stopped trying to pretend that the need to feel, to forget, to simply act and not think, wasn't there. In public, we'd tried to keep our distance. But every now and then, when we'd run into each other and ended up alone, it would inevitably end in another downward spiral together.
Now, almost nine months later, it had become a deeply ingrained habit. We broke apart, then gravitated back towards each other when the pain became too great, and then broke apart again when the guilt became too great. It was a vicious cycle, but the only way of coping. Our only way of coping.
Still, every single time, I wondered. I wondered if, when he closed his eyes while touching me, he was imagining that it was Talia instead. And it was this thought that made me strive to stay away after every transgression. But even in that, I failed miserably. As I always did when it came to him.