Dylan had flat-out refused to date again after Talia's death. Anyone trying to flirt with him simply got a polite smile and a quick brush off. Even at parties, he was very careful about how much he drank and how he danced. As soon as anyone got too close for comfort, he left. I was the only one he got close to, and even then, never in public. As far as anyone else was concerned, we were simply best-friends-turned-acquaintances who were mourning the most important person in our lives.
Nobody knew the exact reason Dylan had taken himself out of the dating equation – some said that he was still mourning Talia, others said that he had buried his heart with her and yet others suggested that it was just his way of assuaging his own survivor's guilt. Whatever the reason, I had found a measure of comfort in the fact that he was holding back from entering another relationship just yet. It let me pretend he was mine.
Because Dylan's no-dating policy was so widely known at Northridge, the gossip spread like wildfire when, a mere three days after Talia's first death anniversary, he broke it for the first time in a year.
I was one of the last to find out, mostly because school was still out and I had withdrawn so much socially that no midnight messages lit up my cell phone screen, no whispered conversations took place over coffee. It had been when I'd gotten to work that Bertha had come up to me.
"I hear you and lifeguard boy are over," she commented with something that was akin to a mocking smile.
"What are you talking about?" I deadpanned, even as my heart stuttered. Nobody knew that we'd been sleeping together. Nobody should have known. "We were never together."
Bertha raised her eyebrows. "Really? Then I guess it doesn't matter that he found himself a new girlfriend."
"Girlfriend?" I parroted, too astonished to keep quiet. "Dylan doesn't date." Not since Talia. And it would be a long time before he would. He was obviously a long way from being over Talia. At least, that was what I'd thought.
Now she was regarding me with something akin to pity. "You haven't heard? He does now."
"And why would you know?" I demanded disbelievingly. She didn't even go to Northridge. Why would she be privy to the details of Dylan's life, when even I didn't know? Close on the heels of this thought came the realisation that I would be the last person to know what was going on in Dylan's life. I was not a part of it anymore.
Bertha jabbed a finger over her shoulder. I saw Mary-Jane standing there, hugging a tray to her chest. "Mary-Jane told me," Bertha said. "It's apparently the newest big news among your schoolmates now."
I shot Mary-Jane a disgruntled look and she shrank back. I'd never pegged her for a gossip. It really was the quiet ones that you had to watch out for.
Then I absently wondered if she'd spread it around that Dylan and I had been together. That wouldn't have helped my reputation any. People would've assumed I'd moved on from seducing random girls' boyfriends to seducing my own dead sister's boyfriend. But what did I care about what they thought? They'd already judged me in comparison to Talia and found me lacking. Just like my parents had.
Like Dylan had.
"Good for him," I finally muttered, knowing that I'd hesitated far too long for it to sound convincing. Looking at Mary-Jane's over-bright eyes, I knew another rumour would be making the rounds by the end of the day.
Annoyed, I took my place behind the counter. Bertha hovered, obviously wanting to watch me have some kind of meltdown. I disappointed her by going about my job as calmly as possible. I would never let her see how much the news had shaken me.
A part of me was frozen in disbelief. I had known that our dysfunctional affair had had to stop – I had been prepared for it. What I hadn't expected was that Dylan would find someone else so quickly. And it was that part of me that was hurt. If anything had proved that I'd meant nothing but a substitute for Talia to him, this was it.
Another part – the part of me that was still Talia's older sister – felt indignant on her behalf, even though I knew it made no sense. She'd been gone for a year; it was well within reason for him to move on. Besides, it was hypocritical of me to expect him to hold onto the memory of Talia forever – I had been the one who had induced him to betray her memory in the first place.
By the time lunchtime rolled around, I was a seething mess internally. It took all that I had to keep calm outwardly. I had no desire to let the voyeurs like Bertha see me squirm.
Unfortunately, Dylan chose this day to visit the café with his brand new girlfriend. I recognised her immediately. Annie Fordham. She was a year below us, and pretty well-known as one of the best gymnasts in school. From what I knew of her, she was also smart, vivacious and pretty. All in all, a younger, alive version of Talia. Dylan had a very clear type.
As if his presence wasn't enough to fire up the rumour mill, Dylan found the need to walk, with his arm wrapped around her, right up to me.
Then he turned to her and flashed one of his bright, genuine smiles. "What do you want, baby?" I heard Bertha's sharp intake of breath and knew she, like the rest of the female population who was subject to that smile, was hooked.
I clenched my jaw. "Your order, please?"
"Could I have a salad combo, please?" The girlfriend shot me a smile that could have rivalled Dylan's. Oh, she was good.
I punched her order into the cash register. "Is that all?"
"I'll have the usual," Dylan said, finally letting go of the girl to reach for his wallet.
"That's a chicken sandwich with extra olives, right? Got it." I smiled sweetly at him.
A tick manifested itself in his jaw. He hated olives. "I think you've got your regulars mixed up, Tara," he said smoothly, his tone betraying no hint of his agitation. Then he flashed me a smirk. "But that's fine, I don't mind trying something new once in a while."
Asshole. "That'll be twelve dollars and eighty-five cents," I droned, all pretence at civility evaporating. I just wanted him gone now.
Dylan whipped out the money and slapped it on the counter before the girl could object. She pouted a little, then gave it up with a tinkling laugh. She reached up to tug at his sleeve, "I'll go grab a seat, okay?"
In a way, I was sad to see her go. Once Dylan was done watching her meander to the other side of the café, he turned back to me unsmilingly. The show was over. Now came the showdown.
"So," I said, just to get it started with.
"So," Dylan repeated. "That's Annie."
His gaze was challenging. He was trying to prove something. Maybe what I'd said to him the night of Talia's memorial had struck deep and this was his way of striking back. Or maybe he'd realised the same thing I had that day – that life had to go on.
Either way, he had chosen.
"Your girlfriend," I said, finding a malicious sort of pleasure in the surprise that crossed his face. My pre-emptive strike had taken the wind out of his sails. "I heard."
He recovered quickly. "Well," he shrugged, "it was time to move on."
I glanced over at Annie Fordham, little and pretty and all smiles, and had to acknowledge that that was his type. The petite and cheerful kind. Just like Talia had been. And what I was most definitely not. My lip curled at this thought. I had no right to feel the crushing sensation in the region of my chest. I had made my choice all those years ago when I'd told Talia to "go for it". And Dylan, apparently, had made his. Even with Talia gone, he had chosen someone that wasn't me.
"So what are you still doing here?" I asked flatly. "The little Talia-clone is over there."
His lips thinned. "Don't call her that."
I was very much aware of all the eyes on us, especially those belonging to Bertha and Mary-Jane. I shrugged and opted for a flippant tone, "I call it like I see it."
"And you've always had such a unique perspective on things," Dylan drawled, a hard, mocking edge in his voice.
It occurred to me that things were about to get ugly. We were virtually airing our dirty laundry right here in the middle of the café, where I was supposed to be working. Everyone was staring at us, even the customers who probably had no idea what was going on.
I discovered that I no longer cared.
"So much for moving on," I said. "All you're doing is just replacing Talia with a clone."
Across the room, Annie leapt out of her seat. "Excuse me?"
We both ignored her.
"As if you're any closer to moving on." For one moment, he was angry. I could see it in the way his eyes flashed and his lips twisted. "You just sleep with any guy who'll have you."
Well, shit, that had hurt. Outwardly, I clenched my jaw but did nothing else.
Mary-Jane stood at the edge of the counter awkwardly, the tray of food in her hands. Without looking at her, Dylan said, "We'll take that to go."
"Fuck you, Dylan." Rational words were beyond me at this point. I was spitting mad and I wanted him to lose his composure like I had. "Don't give me that holier-than-thou attitude when you're guilty of the same crime."
He leaned forward and glared at me. "It was only with you. Can you say the same?"
"You wanted a number, Dylan?" I asked sweetly now, dredging up an old argument. "I'll give you one. Sixteen. Do you wonder which number you are?"
He pushed away from the counter in disgust.
I felt a pang at his reaction, but ignored it. I'd known that he would be disgusted. Wasn't that why I'd tried to keep it from him in the first place?
Not that it mattered what he thought of me, now. What we'd shared was over. And we were both leaving for college pretty soon. We would probably never see each other again.
That thought sobered me a little.
Meanwhile, Mary-Jane had been packing up the food and now she handed it over. And just like that, the argument was over.
Dylan took one last look at me. "Goodbye, Tara."
I made no reply, just watched him walk out the door with his new girlfriend.
The moment the doors swung shut behind them, the café shuddered back to life.
As if on cue, Marjorie emerged from the darkened office at the back. "Tara," she said sharply, "office, now."
I was going to get berated like a small child who had started a fight in the middle of the playground. Not that she'd done anything to stop us while it had been going on; likely, she'd stood in the doorway of the office and devoured the scene like everyone else had.
What a hypocrite.
My mind was made up within that split second. I pulled off the apron that was part of the work uniform and threw it on the counter. To hell with that. To hell with them.
I took great pleasure in saying the words. "Don't bother. I quit."
That night, I did what I always inevitably did when deprived of Dylan. I went to a party. Then another. And yet another. This time, though, it was different. Before, I'd always known that there had been unfinished business between Dylan and me – no matter what the both of us said about stopping. But this time, there would be no more relapses with Dylan. It was over for good. I had nothing more to lose.
By the end of the week, I was all burnt out. Recklessness had taken root, and I of all people knew how dangerous it could be. It had taken the most important thing from Talia, after all. And on Saturday night, at yet another party thrown by yet another nameless schoolmate, it was this recklessness in my blood that drove me to try and take back, from Annie Fordham's dainty little hands, the most important thing I had left.
Dylan had come with Annie to the party – probably milking the opportunity to show everyone that he had moved on from Talia. He was rarely seen without her these days. We also hadn't spoken since the day when I'd quit my summer job, and since I no longer worked there, the chances of me running into him were close to none. That had worked well for me when I'd been avoiding him. Now, though, I needed to get him alone.
It didn't take much planning. I simply waited until he left to get a drink for his little clone of a girlfriend before accosting him. When he wandered into the kitchen, I shoved him into the storage room and pulled the door shut behind us.
"What the–" Caught off guard, Dylan swore as he tumbled into a shelf of supplies.
I snapped the light on and saw the moment recognition dawned. His gaze flitted from me to the door, a frown beginning to crease his forehead. "What are you doing, Tara?"
I didn't reply, just reached up and started loosening the top buttons of his shirt. He caught my wrists in one hand, effectively stopping me.
I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him. His lips moved against mine for the fraction of a second, but then he jerked away and moved backwards. I instinctively reached out for him. "Dylan…"
He was running a frustrated hand through his hair. "Tara… Don't do this. Please."
I moved forward determinedly, but he took another step backward. "Dylan, I... Forget what I said before," I tried to explain, but the words seemed all jumbled up. "You're the only one who understands. I need you. Now." As proof, I launched myself against him and wrapped my arms around his neck.
He took me by the shoulders and gently pushed me away. "I can't," he said. "Tara. I can't. I'm with Annie now." Annie, again. He seemed really determined to make that relationship work.
"Why?" I croaked. Why her?
He shrugged. "Why not?" He turned away from me and walked to the windows. "It's time to… move on."
"Just because you have a girlfriend doesn't mean anything," I tried.
He turned furious eyes on me. "I'm not like those other guys you fuck, Tara," he bit out. "I don't cheat."
I flinched a little at the venom in his voice. "That's..." That wasn't what I'd meant, and he knew it.
I saw him glance towards the door, and I knew that I was losing him. His expression had taken on that distant cast – the one I had witnessed being used on an unwanted suitor so many times, the one that I had never in a million years thought would be used on me. Even after Talia had died and friendship and concern had soured into hate and anger... He'd always had an emotion for me. I had always been the exception. Until now.
"What if," I began lowly, desperation driving my words, "it wasn't Annie you're dating?" That question had him jerking his head up to stare at me. There was a horrible look in his eyes that pleaded with me not to say it. There was a sour feeling spreading in the region of my stomach and I realised something.
He knew. Panic spasmed in my chest. How had he known? How long?
"What if," I had to swallow to get the words past the lump in my throat. I almost considered not saying the words, because I knew from his expression what his answer would be, but I couldn't stop. Not now. Not when I'd finally gathered up to courage to say what I'd never said two years ago. "What if it was me?"
Dylan's hands clenched into fists. I knew he was physically restraining himself from coming over to touch me, to succumb to blissful escapism, like he always did. The fact that he was trying so hard to stay away from me just about killed me. "We need to leave each other alone, Tara," he said quietly, evasively. "Don't you see? We're killing each other like this. With us, it's always two extreme ends of the spectrum. We're either fighting, or we're fucking each other's brains out." He closed his eyes and sighed. "I can't do that anymore. I don't want to do that anymore."
What he wasn't saying came across loud and hear. He didn't need me anymore. He had tried one way of coping, and it hadn't worked. What he wanted now was stability – who he wanted now was Annie.
"I see," I said, and I did see. We weren't good for each other – I'd known that from the start.
Dylan took a step forward. "Tara–"
"I love you." The words were flat, drained of the emotion they should have conveyed. I watched him flinch. "But you already knew that."
He looked at me for a long moment, then said simply, "Yes."
"How long?" My voice was steady, but I'd had to grab onto a table to stay upright. The hard edge cut into my palm, but I barely noticed. It was nothing compared to the bud of betrayal beginning to flower within me. He had been using me, all along, even though he'd known...
"Since that night." He could suddenly no longer meet my eyes. "That night… when Talia…"
My throat had suddenly dried up.
"I didn't tell you before, because it didn't matter."
I stared at him, waiting. The drumming noise in my ears was so loud that I couldn't be sure if it was the sound of my own heartbeat or the sound of guilt coming from beneath the floorboards, like in Edgar Allan Poe's short story.
"That night…" He had to clear his throat before continuing. "That night…"
And suddenly I didn't need to hear him say it to remember. I felt a rush of blood surged through my brain, and with it came a clear image that hit me so hard that I had to take a step backwards.
That night, I had kissed him.
It had been when he'd pulled me off the table and shoved me into the kitchen. He had shouted at me. He had wanted to know why I had gone so off the rails over the past year or so. And I had told him, in a drunken rage, that I had loved him for long before Talia had. And then I had kissed him.
And he had pushed me away, before fixing a pleading gaze on something behind me… He'd pushed past me, lifting his hand in a gesture so universal that no words had been needed. Wait.
I felt like someone had sucker-punched me in the stomach. The breath left me in a whoosh of air, and I wondered sickeningly if this was how Talia had felt when that airbag had punched through her in those final few seconds of life.
It all made sense now. That was why they had fought. Tears pricked my eyes. Talia… How guilty did she have to have felt, to have heard that I'd been carrying a torch for her boyfriend all along? How betrayed?
"Did…" My voice failed me for a minute, because I already knew the answer. "Did she…"
"She saw." His voice was barely higher than a whisper.
I stood mutely, unseeingly.
"I didn't believe you," Dylan said now. His voice was quiet, steady, but then he'd had over a year to come to terms with this piece of information that he'd just unloaded on me. "I thought you were just trying to break us up. And it worked. She broke up with me right there and then."
And there it was – the reason why Dylan had seemed to hate me afterwards, why he had blamed me for Talia's death that night.
I felt cold, the kind of cold that started on the inside and spread through your body until even your veins turned to ice. I had been right. She had stepped back. She had put my happiness before her own.
Because she was that kind of a sister.
He took a deep breath. "I never guessed that it was true. I never believed you, until..."
"I have to go," I whispered, because I didn't want to hear anymore. I could feel my soul curling inward, trying to protect itself from the pain that the truth brought. I stumbled towards the door, suddenly needing to get out. I was suffocating in here. Being in this room with him was killing me, bit by bit. Word by word.
When my hand closed over the cool doorknob, I heard him say, as if throwing a pitiful dog a bone, "It wasn't your fault."
I yanked open the door. "Yes," I said, so quietly that I wasn't sure he could hear me. I could barely hear myself. "It was."
Outside, the party went on – people laughing, dancing, drinking like nothing of import had happened. Like my world hadn't just been shattered again.
I parked myself by the beer keg and started drinking.
I lost track of time. It must've been my eighth cup before I felt a warm body come to stand next to me. I ignored it.
Another few gulps later, I heard it speak. The deep baritone revealed that it was male. "Are you alright?"
"No," I said shortly.
"I'm Trip," he said.
I ignored him.
"What's your name?" he tried again.
"Are you trying to find someone to fuck?" I asked, expecting the question to scare him away.
"What would you say if I was?"
I looked up for the first time. Trip was about my height, with shaggy brown hair and passably good looks. When I didn't immediately throw the contents of my cup into his face, he sidled closer and wrapped an arm around my waist.
I let him.
It was no longer about forgetting Talia, or Dylan. It was about escaping the guilt festering anew within me, even for one brief moment.
I threw back the last of my beer and crumpled the paper cup in my fist. "Okay," I said.
My mistake was in throwing one last glance over my shoulder on the way up. By some freak coincidence, my gaze cut through the crowd of people and collided with Dylan's.
He looked back at me, his eyes glittering with the same pain that I knew was reflected in mine.
Numb, I followed Trip up the stairs.