As the days to Talia's first death anniversary decreased, the times Dylan and I found ourselves rolling in my bed – or his, or any flat surface for that matter – increased. It was the first time I'd seen him so frequently since Talia had died. But quantity, in our case, didn't mean quality. We rarely talked on these occasions – it was always just sex. Sex to lose ourselves in, to forget. I knew, and he knew, that this was an unhealthy way of coping. But it was all we knew to do. It was all we could do.
One week passed; two.
Then the twelfth of August came, and Dylan became the last person I wanted to see. He apparently felt the same way, because even though we had to be visiting the same places that day, I saw neither hide nor hair of him.
Truth be told, that didn't bother me. After seeing him every day for the past two weeks, I'd needed a break from him and the memories that seeing him inevitably brought. In a way, seeing him always reminded me even more of Talia. What Talia had meant to him. What Talia had meant to me. And what he had meant – still meant – to me. My relationship – if one could call it that – with Dylan had become a mass of contradictions. Being with him let me forget, but also, inevitably, forced me to remember.
For lack of a place to go to, I found myself back at Talia's grave for the second time that day. The fresh flowers I had brought that morning lay where I had placed it. I sighed and bent over, running my hand over the cold gravestone.
I imagined her lying six feet down below ground, with nothing but the soil and maggots for company, stuck in the coffin with no way out. The bile rose in my throat as I squeezed my eyes shut.
"Sis," I whispered. It was the only word I managed before the tears came.
I have no idea how long I spent in the cemetery, crying, kneeling over my sister's grave. Eventually, when I straightened, my throat was hoarse and my eyes were so swollen they felt glued shut. Whoever had said a good bout of crying was cathartic had been spouting rubbish. Now I only felt a clawing ball of agony lodged within my chest.
There was a rustle behind me and I jerked around to see Dylan standing a distance away, in the shadows under the trees.
But he wasn't looking at me. He was looking past me to Talia's gravestone. He walked slowly, sluggishly, towards the gravestone, leaning down to place his hand on it like I had. It had made me feel closer to Talia, and, watching him, I wondered if it made him feel the same. He ran his hand over the slab of marble, stroking it, caressing it, looking as if he could see something I couldn't.
I saw his lips move silently and looked away, feeling as if I was I intruding on the private time of two lovers. I stared into space for a long time, battling tears that now came for an entirely different reason. When I next looked back, he was placing a single tulip – Talia's favourite flower – on her grave. Then he swallowed and turned on his heel.
I let him go without a word. What was there left to say? Seeing him treat Talia's gravestone so gently had brought it home – what we had going on... It was betrayal. It couldn't continue.
This was the end – the end of whatever had been going on between the two of us. I should've never started it in the first place, but I hadn't been able to help myself. For a little while, he had been my sanctuary, just like he'd been when we had been younger – just in another way. And that was enough.
It was time to let go of what had never been mine in the first place.
Talia's memorial was held in the park near Northridge High School. The venue was fitting – the park had been Talia's favourite hangout spot when she'd been alive. The memorial was a large affair; all sorts of people came that I didn't recognise – strangers united in their love of Talia. A group of Talia's closest friends had organised everything, and my parents had chipped in for the funding. There were flowers, candles, balloons and a memorial table filled with things that Talia had loved. Katie Schmidt, Talia's best friend, had asked me to contribute a memory for the table and I'd torn off that photo of us from my wall and given it to them. She'd also asked me to give a short speech, but I'd declined. How did I fit all that Talia had been, all that she'd done, into a few hundred words? I couldn't.
Dylan could. He, among others, spoke at the memorial, but when it was his turn, there was a mild buzzing among the audience.
"That's her boyfriend," this whisper rippled through the crowd.
"I've heard he hasn't dated since."
"Wow – it's been a year!"
"If that isn't devoted, I don't know what is."
"Such a pity though, he's a real looker."
A giggle. "Hey, Cathy, how long do you think it'll take to get to come home with me tonight?"
"Don't be a jerk! It's Talia's memorial service, you know..."
"Maybe tomorrow, then..."
I was standing with my parents at the front and centre of the crowd, not two feet away from him. If I heard them, Dylan must have too, but he didn't blink an eye. He spoke about how Talia had been in life, about her flaws but mostly about her strengths, and how she had made a difference to the ones who'd known and loved her.
I wasn't listening, not really. I was watching his expressions change – the muted light shining in his eyes, the half-smile quirking his lips when he remembered her. His love was etched on his face for everyone to see. I felt something bitter start gnawing at me from within.
A part of me – the part of me that was a twin – was happy that Talia had such a staunch supporter. She had been so blessed to have had Dylan in her life. Some people searched a lifetime for such a love. Another part of me, the part I wish I didn't have – the part of me that was me – was darkly jealous.
After the speeches, the memories, we were all handed a balloon each. Rose pink – Talia's favourite colour. Memo pads and pens were passed out, and everyone wrote a short message to Talia before sticking it on the balloon they had been given. I thought long and hard and came up with nothing. She had been my twin sister, my other half. I wanted to tell her everything that had happened since she'd been gone. How did I condense a year's worth of letters into one memo note? Eventually, just as everyone else was ready to release their balloons, I scribbled two words down: "I'm sorry." Then I let my balloon fly with the rest.
We all tilted our heads and watched as a sea of pink rose up to meet the night sky. I remember vaguely thinking that Talia would've loved that sight. She would've found it poetic.
That was more than I could take, and I retreated deeper into the park, away from the crowd, when Talia's friends started asking for guests to recount their favourite memories of Talia in the guest book.
The purpose of such an exercise was beyond me. I didn't want to pick a favourite memory, didn't want to sieve through every single memory of Talia to find a single shining spot that I could bandy about and claim as the culmination of our relationship. It didn't work that way. With siblings, it was the everyday that counted. Tiny, fleeting moments that didn't matter much until they accumulated and became the definition of your relationship. There was no favourite memory. Just lots of good and bad memories that came together to define who we were to each other.
How long I sat there, remembering, I didn't know. By the time the haze of memories had dissipated and I re-emerged into reality, cicada cries were the only sounds I could hear.
When I stepped back into the clearing, two things became clear to me at once. First – that the memorial service had ended and nearly everyone had gone. I must have been zoned out for a long time. And second – Dylan was the only one left.
Looking at him standing there, staring into the distance, the moonlight reflecting off his hair, sharpening the angles of his face, giving him an air of danger and mystery and putting a shine in his eyes – that was all too much for me. In that moment, I hated him – hated him for being so attractive, hated him for not feeling the same way about me as I did about him, hated him for loving my sister but not caring enough to stop her from driving that day, hated him for not being wholly, irrevocably mine. I felt the anger rising in me like an inferno, and welcomed it.
Anything – anything but this pain of remembering.
I started out in his direction, not taking any care whatsoever to silence my approach. I wanted him to hear me coming. He didn't look at me until I stopped half a foot in front of him.
"Why are you here?" He asked.
I stared at him oddly. "She's my sister. I'm supposed to be here."
He frowned and gave a short, frustrated sigh. "The service is over. Why are you still here?"
"Why are you?" I countered.
"If this is about us–"
I cut him off with a mocking laugh. "What 'us'? Don't be conceited, I'm not always looking to jump your bones."
"Good." He turned his back on me, not-so-subtly dismissing me.
I felt a flare of anger hit me at his standoffishness. He was content to ignore me as long as he didn't want sex. Did he think he was the only one who loved her, who missed her?
"You're a real asshole, Dylan," I said to his back.
He didn't respond.
"She wasn't just yours, you know," I bit out, angry that he was behaving like an ice statue. For the first time, I understood how his usual attitude of indifference made people feel. I wanted to punch him, to crack that ice, to make him react. "She was mine, too... She was mine first."
I finally had his attention. He turned and I saw that his eyes were spitting sparks. "I knew it," he said, in the grimly satisfied tone of someone who had been proven right on something he hadn't wanted to believe but did.
"Knew what?" I clenched my fists to stop myself from wiping that satisfaction off his face.
"You are such a selfish little bitch," he snarled, turning on me with a vengeance. I saw that his own hands were curled into fists. "You were jealous, weren't you? You couldn't stand it when I stole your sister away from you."
He was wrong. He was so wrong that I found myself speechless for a second. "You're wrong," I managed, taking an involuntary step back. I hadn't been jealous of him. I'd been jealous of Talia, because she'd had him. If that made me a bad sister, I was a terrible one. But I knew the truth, and it was that if Talia had been dating anybody else, I would've given her my full blessing... But it hadn't been anybody else. It had been Dylan. The one exception. "You're wrong," I repeated, my voice stronger this time.
He ignored my denial. "You started avoiding me the moment we started dating," he pointed out, as if that was the only proof he needed. "You left rooms that I walked into. All of a sudden, overnight – you couldn't stand the sight of me!" His eyes flashed with remembered anger. "You threw away our friendship like it meant nothing to you, all because you were so petty you couldn't stand to see your own sister happy."
"Not everything is about you," I said sharply, even though for me it was. It had always been about him. But he hadn't been the only one I'd tried to avoid. I'd avoided Talia too – it had just been less obvious because we'd had to live in the same house. He was right about one thing, though. I hadn't been able to stomach seeing Talia so happy with him. That familiar old guilt rose up, almost choking me.
"No, but not everything has to be about you, either," Dylan said flatly.
"You think I don't know that?" I burst out. I couldn't stand listening to his accusations for a second longer, because they were simply not true. It had been a year since Talia had died, but my parents were still so busy mourning her every day that they'd forgotten they still had one daughter left. They'd forgotten that I had also been in that accident, that I had also lost a beloved family member. And Dylan... It had always been just Talia for him. Always had been, always would be. Sometimes I wondered if he even remembered who I had been to him, before he had started dating Talia. "Nothing is about me. Nothing is ever about me."
His eyes were narrowed. "God, you are so self-centred."
"I can't stand you!" I screamed at him then – it was either scream or cry, and I didn't want him to see how deeply his words had cut into me. Did he not know me? What were those ten years of friendship worth?
"The feeling is mutual," he replied emotionlessly, like he had reached into himself and shut off any feelings he might've felt for me. Then again, maybe he'd had none in the first place. Likely, I'd just been a convenient piece of ass for him. And how even more convenient for him that I looked like Talia. It irked me that he'd agreed so easily, as if I meant nothing to him, that I wanted to hit out at him. To put a little bit of the pain I was feeling in his eyes.
"So I suppose you'll find someone else to fuck tonight?" I challenged. "You fucking nymphomaniac." I wanted to hurt him by saying crude things, things that would shock him.
"Yes, maybe," he bared his teeth in a feral grin that was no grin at all. It reflected no pleasure, just grim determination. Determination to lash out and hurt me. He was just as furious as I was, just as bloodthirsty. "Anyone but you." Then he chuckled mockingly. "I'm the nymphomaniac...?"
I gritted my teeth but tried not to react otherwise. I couldn't let him see how much he'd hurt me with his words. I rallied and took the plunge. "Admit it, Dylan," I said scornfully, as if his words didn't matter to me one way or the other, "you'll come crawling back sooner or later. I'm the closest thing to Talia you will ever get, now that she's dead."
His eyes glittered. "Are you comparing yourself to her?" He asked, leaving the cruel punchline for last, "You could never even come close."
I laughed, hating it when the sound rang in the air and I heard how brittle it was. "And what do you know about her?" I shot back. "All you've seen are the sides of her that she knows you like, things that I told her you like. How can you be sure that the girl you love really exists?"
That took him aback. He opened his mouth then closed it again, clenching his jaw. "You..."
"She wanted you, and I helped her get you," I shrugged, narrowing my eyes at him. "So how does it feel to know that you were manipulated like a stud by your oh-so-perfect girlfriend?"
"She's your sister," he growled. "Watch what you say about her."
It was my turn to fall silent. He was right. Every word that came out of my mouth was hurting myself as much as it hurt him – maybe even more, because he didn't seem to be hurting at all. Even now, even after everything I'd said, he was still icily calm.
"You were right, you know," he continued, knowing that his prey was cornered and going in for the kill. I knew the words that were coming even before he said them, and I knew that he hated me. He couldn't not hate me and still say something like that.
"Whenever we fucked, I'd look into your eyes and pretend it was her."
And with that one sentence, Dylan Ainsworth completed the heartbreak that my sister had started so many years ago, when she'd come into my room and told me that she had fallen in love with my best friend.
There was a long silence. I didn't know if I stopped breathing for a few minutes. I only remember feeling dazed, like the world had stopped spinning, like in that one suspended moment before a crash when you knew – just knew, that you were never going to recover from this for the rest of your life.
Then in the next moment, everything sped up and pain exploded in my chest. I gasped – I couldn't help it; it was either that or suffocate. There was a roaring in my ears as reality hurtled forward to make up for the long moment of complete silence. Dylan stood watching me, his eyes black in the darkness, watching, just watching. Watching me bleed from his words.
I knew he was lashing out in response to my goading. His failure to displace the pain that came from remembering how Talia had died one year ago had made him cruel, just like it had done me. He might not even truly have meant what he'd said.
But there were some things that you could never – ever – take back.
"I hate you," I whispered through stiff lips, my words thin and frail in the night air but so sincere that Dylan flinched a little. But I could care less about his reaction by then; it was all I could do to focus on placing one foot in front of the other in a bid to get back into the house unscathed. No – not unscathed. It was too late for that.
I needed to get away from him.
The park was deserted when I walked through it. My parents had left. Maybe they'd tried to call but I hadn't felt my phone buzz, or maybe they'd simply forgotten. They had been so adamant about my not driving, not on this day that had taken their daughter from them, but they'd still left without me. Sometimes it felt like Talia had been their only daughter.
I shook my head, heading for the parking lot. It didn't matter. I'd been looking out for myself for the past year, ever since Talia had left a gaping hole in our family unit that I couldn't even begin to fill. I'd driven here on my own; I could drive myself back.
I had just turned the ignition key when I saw, through the windshield, Dylan stalking purposefully towards my car.
He must have followed me out.
I hit the locks, but he was faster. He yanked open the passenger's door in the split second before the locks engaged, and slid in beside me.
"Get out!" I snarled.
"No," he said flatly. "Not unless you let me drive you home." There was a bleakness etched around the corners of his mouth that told me he wasn't thinking of me; not really. He was trying to rewrite history. He was thinking of her again. Still thinking of her.
But Talia was dead. No matter what he did now, she stayed dead. And I wasn't her. I was furious, hurt, heartbroken – but I hadn't planned on driving home immediately. I'd been planning on parking three blocks away and stopping to have a good cry. I couldn't do that with Dylan here.
"Fine. I won't drive. I'll call a cab. Just get out of my car."
"I wasn't born yesterday," he said drily, "I know when you're lying."
"You don't know anything about me," I ground out, even though I had been lying. I would've hit the gas the moment he'd gotten out of the car, and he knew it. I knew that he knew it.
He leaned over and I shrank back, instinctively, into my seat. Something flickered in his eyes, but he continued reaching across me until he'd gotten a hold of the buckle. Then he drew the seatbelt across my body, fastening it with a click. Apparently satisfied with his actions, he sat back in his own seat.
I felt all the energy drain out of me. If only he'd done this for Talia that night. If only I had. Sick at heart, I muttered, "Put yours on." I drummed my fingers nervously against the steering wheel, watching out of the corner of my eye as he buckled himself in.
When he was done, I shifted the gears and started manoeuvring the car out of the parking lot. My hands were shaking a lot harder than they usually did. Maybe Dylan buckling me in had driven home the way Talia had died, or maybe that incident from one year ago was just weighing heavily on my mind that day – even the idea of driving, of being trapped in a car on the road surrounded by other cars, gave me the shivers.
Still, my pride prevented me from simply pulling over. I gritted my teeth and drove on, my fingers gripping the steering wheel so tightly that I was almost sure I had left hand imprints on either side of it.
It took me a whole ten minutes to just inch out of the lot.
Dylan didn't say anything. I flicked a glance at him and saw that his lips were set in a grim line. He knew why I was driving at a speed barely faster than a crawl.
I drove for three blocks. It took a long, long time. By the end of it, my hands were shaking so badly that I had no choice but to pull up by the curb before I hit someone or someone hit me.
Dylan was still silent in the passenger's seat. I didn't look at him, didn't want to look at him and see the expression on his face. I could almost imagine his mockery and I didn't want to see it. I felt that I really would cry then.
My mind was spinning with images – images that burned my brain. They were probably born of my own imagination, though, since I didn't remember a thing from that night – images of Talia, hurting during her last moments. Talia, scared to death in that last few moments, seeing me out cold and wondering if she'd killed me. Talia, bleeding slowly to death behind the driver's wheel. Was this how she had felt? Slowly turning colder with every second...
"Tara." I felt burning warmth on my hand and looked down to see Dylan's larger hand covering my small, pale one. He gently pried my fingers away from the steering wheel, working first on my right hand, then leaning closer to do the same with my left. I watched the movements of his fingers numbly. "Tara," he repeated, more sharply now. "Calm down. Look at me."
I shook my head, and the world wobbled as if in slow motion. I looked out the car window, vaguely wondering why it felt so cold. Summer nights weren't usually this cold. Then I felt heat engulf my neck, and insistent fingers push at the sides of my face. I blinked as I came face to face with Dylan.
His blue gaze was bright with some emotion that my mind didn't want to latch onto right then. "Tara," he said, "it's okay. You're okay. Breathe. Take deep breaths."
It was then that I realised my breaths had been coming out in short pants. I was breathing too quickly, too shallowly, and my heart was hammering in my chest. And I was shivering. I couldn't stop shivering. "Deep breaths," Dylan repeated, and I tried to focus on the warmth of his hands and the steadiness of his voice.
I looked into his bright blue eyes and breathed. In that moment, he was my anchor. Nothing mattered but him and breathing. Inhale, exhale. Inhale... Exhale.
"You're okay." Dylan regarded me steadily, his hands drawing comforting patterns against my neck. His body heat was burning me, seeping under my skin, chasing the cold away.
A while later, when my breathing had returned to normal and my hands had stopped shaking, I remembered. I turned my head away from Dylan. He let his hands fall away and settled back in his seat like nothing had happened.
I started the engine again, listening to the soft purr of the car. My hands felt clammy. My heartbeat sped up and I was feeling light-headed again. I couldn't risk it. Not when Dylan was in the car, too. If we crashed and he died and I didn't... I wouldn't be able to handle it this time. "I..." I licked dry lips and forced my next words out. "Maybe you should drive."
He didn't say a word, just got out of the car and came over to open my door.
After the switch had been made, I sat in the passenger's seat, clutching at my seatbelt as the scenery outside surged past. Dylan was a good driver, but I couldn't stop the anxiety quivering in my stomach. I knew that he was completely sober, that he wasn't Talia, that it was just a short drive home and nothing would happen – my mind knew that, but my heart didn't. So I sat in the car, terrified to even move for fear that I'd upset the balance of the car or do anything else that would cause a crash.
Dylan darted a quick glance at me. "When was the first time you drove after the accident?" He asked.
"Don't... Don't talk! Look at the road!" I cried, somewhat hysterically.
He exhaled audibly, but did as I said.
By the time he pulled up in front of my house, I was all too ready to scramble out, but Dylan grasped me by the shoulder and yanked me back none too gently.
"What the hell are you doing?" My nerves were fried from the car ride and I wanted nothing more than to stumble back onto solid, unmoving ground.
"How long have you been driving like that?" He snapped. He was scowling at me again, looking like he was raring for another fight. Hadn't he already hurt me enough?
"I'm not in the mood to get into another argument with you now, okay?" I tore away from him and vaulted out of the door.
He was there when I reached the front door. I turned to gape at my car in astonishment. "You didn't even close the car door!" I accused, before retracing my steps to do just that.
"You were running away," he said, like that explained everything. I glared at him as I slammed the car door shut, then held out my hand for the keys. He dropped them in my palm.
After ensuring that the doors were locked, I turned back around and realised that he was blocking my path to the house. "Get out of the way," I demanded.
He was unmoved. "How long?"
"How long what?"
"How long have you been trying to kill yourself?"
I felt the blood leave my face. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"What happened – back there," he flung a hand in the direction of my car, "is that what happens every time you drive?"
His gaze was steely and I couldn't meet them any longer. I looked away, the action more telling than words could have been.
Dylan turned away and swore viciously. "What the fuck were you thinking?" He bit, anger edging his every word. "Are you trying to get into a crash?"
"It doesn't happen every time," I found my voice, but it came out in a low, defensive mumble. "And I always stop if I don't feel well."
"You're a fucking moron," Dylan gritted out.
"Fuck you!" I shoved at him, even though I knew he wouldn't budge. "I've had enough of your fucking insults! Just leave me alone!" I could feel the pressure building behind my eyes and knew that the tears were just another well-placed criticism away.
He grabbed me by the shoulders as if tempted to give me a good shaking. "Tara..." His fingers were biting into my skin, a reflection of the agitated state he was in. "What are you doing to yourself?"
His words set off a spark deep within me. "What right do you have to ask me that?" I snapped, feeling as if a dam had burst within me. Tears streaked down my cheeks but I paid them no mind. I rounded on him, shrieking, no longer caring if the neighbours were going to hear. "Fuck you, Dylan Ainsworth! With you, it's always Talia, Talia, Talia. Do you think I don't know I'm just a substitute for her? Do you think it doesn't kill me a little bit inside every time we fuck, you pretend I'm her? Do you think nobody notices that you never date anymore, that you never take off that fucking watch she gave you from the grave? Do you think I don't think about her every time I see you? I may look like Talia, but you are the walking, living, breathing reminder of her!"
He looked stunned by my outburst.
I wiped a hand across my face and came away with a palmful of snot and tears. I was winding down, my anger deflating curiously. "You've built yourself into, like, a living shrine of her. It's not just me; everyone thinks that. I get that you loved her, fine. But don't talk to me about what I do to myself when I'm just trying to continue with my life the best I can. But you... You're not moving on at all. I don't know if you ever can. It's like... You're broken, Dylan. It's like without her, you may as well be dead."
This was different from what we'd been doing earlier. Back then, we'd been having a calculated argument, almost like a game – each of us trying to see who could hurt the other the most. But now I wasn't trying to hurt him. This came from the heart, and maybe it was what made it all the more potent. All the more painful.
Dylan's face had turned to stone, but not before I saw a stricken look flash in his eyes. "So this is what you think? I should have died instead of her, or maybe with her. Is that it?"
I stared at him, hurting because he was so obviously hurting. He was misunderstanding every word out of my mouth. His very being was both a balm on my soul and a dagger in my heart, but how could I tell him about the good he had done me without revealing my feelings for him? And how could I tell him that I loved him without further betraying Talia?
Then I thought back to what he'd said earlier that night and my heart turned to stone. Why would he even want to know?
"That's not it," I finally whispered.
I'd taken too long to reply, because then he was suddenly brushing past me. He got as far as the pavement before turning back around. "Just go into the house, Tara," he said lowly, not quite looking me in the eye.
"What?" I was bewildered at the sudden change in topic.
He slid his hands into his pockets, watching me with hooded eyes. He was done talking, I realised. There was a kind of finality in this moment, the kind that all our previous goodbyes had never had. I looked at him, wanting to say something, anything, but the closed off expression on his face discouraged further communication.
Still, he stood there, obviously itching to leave, but waiting for me to enter the house before he would. My heart clenched.
Mechanically, I marched myself down the path and through the door, stopping only to fumble with my keys. It was only when I was back in my room that I pushed aside the curtain to watch Dylan walk away. His steps were quick, restless, and he had barely taken a few before he broke into a run, as if he couldn't wait to get out of his own skin.
Or away from me.