After that, the next time I spoke to Dylan wasn't until an entire year later.
In the meantime, everything had changed. I'd gotten into a college far away from home, and had left as soon as everything could've been arranged. And I'd never looked back. I hadn't returned home even for Christmas, knowing what a farce that would have been.
Unlike the typical college experience, mine had been a pretty uneventful year. I'd focused more on work and avoided most parties. But I'd met people who'd only known me as Tara, the college student, rather than Tara, the twin. I'd made friends. I'd gone on a couple of dates that had led to 'coffee' upstairs. I'd tried my best to stop feeling guilty about Talia's death. And I'd tried to forget Dylan.
Neither plan had worked.
On the other hand, so much had changed at home in the time I had been away. My mother had finally gotten help for her alcoholism, only to succumb to infidelity as a form of escapism. I'd received the news of my parents' impending divorce through a terse phone call from my father telling me that my mother had fled her old life, leaving him alone in the empty house full of haunting memories. And now it was summer once again, and I had returned home for the first time since I'd left for college.
Not that it mattered – my father still worked eighteen-hour workdays to avoid returning home, even when I was there. In that sense, nothing had changed. The day I'd returned, I had decided that after this summer, I would finally put my old life behind me. When I left at the end of the summer, I was going to leave this town for good. At college, I had realised that I could be anyone I wanted. And I liked that feeling. There was a new life waiting for me out there, and I had all the time in the world to find it – after this one trip, this last trip home, to say goodbye. Goodbye to my childhood home, my twin sister… and a childhood love I had never really let go of.
Two days after I had arrived home, I came across Dylan quite by accident. I had been walking along the beach, wondering if my return had been as futile as the action of the waves lapping at the sand – trying so desperately to get closer, only to be pulled away in the next instant. I had visited Talia's grave earlier that day, but if I had been expecting an epiphany at the sight of her name carved in marble, I had been sorely disappointed. Everything had looked... the same. It was as if I had never been away.
That had been a depressing thought.
It was then that I'd looked out over the ocean and seen that gleam of familiar blond against the deep blue water. I'd heard that Dylan had just returned for the summer as well, and hadn't yet decided if I wanted to see him.
Now, seeing him for the first time in a year, I realised that I didn't. The year away from home had been a breath of fresh air. I had just started learning how to breathe again. Being back home, seeing all the places and people from my past – it all brought back memories that I would rather forget. There really was nothing left for me here.
I was just turning to leave when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dylan sink into the sea.
I held my breath, watching the waves, waiting for him to surface. A long moment passed and he didn't, and I was feeling the staccato rhythm of panic beginning to beat in my chest, even though I knew he was probably just holding his breath underwater, testing his limits. He was a good swimmer – he was brilliant, actually. But there were also unforeseen circumstances; cramps, jellyfish, seaweed – didn't I know that all too well? There were always unforeseen circumstances. Accidents happened. And people died.
Before I was even aware of doing so, my hands were pulling off my clothes, leaving me in only my undergarments, and my legs were moving, my feet pounding on the sand, and then the water closed over me and for a moment I sank. Then my legs kicked and I shot upwards and then I was gulping down air, and swimming, swimming in search of him – and I could barely see where I was going with the water in my eyes, and all the while I was wondering: why did all these things happen to the people most important to me?
I swam desperately for a while before realising I was so disoriented that I had no idea where to begin to look for Dylan, and it had been so long since he'd gone under. And even if I did find him – what could I do? I had no idea how to go about saving someone, and he was almost twice my size. I stopped with a choked gasp as logic reasserted itself. But I couldn't leave Dylan to die alone. More tears sprang into my eyes and I felt the current pushing against me, urging me further out, further from the shore. For one crazy moment, I looked at the dark waters and wondered how it would feel like to just close my eyes and sink.
Then suddenly there was a splash, and another, and another – until it evolved into a steady rhythm and I turned to see Dylan swimming with long, strong strokes towards me. The relief that poured over me was so intense, so overwhelming, that I forgot that I was in the ocean. Just as I was focusing all my attention on his approaching form, a wave crashed over me and took me by surprise. I saw Dylan's eyes widen and then I went under and darkness engulfed me from all sides.
And in that split second, I realised something – I didn't want to die. I wanted what Talia had never had the chance to do. I wanted to live.
I kicked blindly, not knowing which way was up, and was starting to truly panic when I felt something warm grab me and pull. Stifling my natural reaction – which was to scream, which would have let the oxygen out of my lungs and replaced it with salt water – I tried to shove it away, pushing it down in order to propel myself upwards. That warm something fought back, twisting to break away from my death grip. I felt a sharp pressure on my thumbs and let go, my mouth opening involuntarily in a silent cry of pain. The air gurgled out of my mouth and I knew it was over. If I breathed in, I was going to drown. And if I didn't, I was going to suffocate.
Just as these two choices flashed through my mind, choices that weren't choices at all, I felt my legs being seized and my body was spun around, and then that warm something came back and anchored itself across my chest. Barely a second later, my head broke the surface of the water and I gasped, gulping down the cool night air greedily because I couldn't get enough of it. When my lungs had stopped burning, I tried to twist around to see what it was that had wrapped around me so tightly and was even now carrying me forward through the water.
"Don't move!" Dylan shouted in my ear, doing something that pushed his arm more tightly across my chest and locking me in against his hip. I couldn't see him, but I heard his ragged breaths and the splashes he made in the water as he swam us both back to shore with only one free arm. I tried to relax, to make his job easier, but dread was filling me as I figured out that the warm thing that had tried to grab me underwater – that I'd pushed away and tried to clamber on top of – had been him.
Closing my burning eyes, I sent a prayer of thanks that he'd been trained as a lifeguard and had thwarted my attempt to push him deeper into the water. How could I have lived with myself if I'd killed him in my own attempt at survival?
When we finally reached the shore, Dylan carted me a little way up before collapsing on the beach with me still in his arms. He hovered over me, arms cushioning my back, knees in the sand on either side of mine, as if he was trying to create a shield around me with his own body. Then he crushed me to his chest, holding me so tightly that I gasped. His head fell forward until his face was nuzzling my neck. "Oh God..." I heard him mutter, over and over.
Slowly, I reached up and put my arms around him. His skin was unnaturally cold, even for someone who'd just walked out of the ocean on a cool summer's night. He was in shock; I didn't know about what. Maybe it had just sunk in that I'd tried to kill him, back there under the water? "Dyl," I whispered, unknowingly reverting to the nickname I'd called him by back when we'd been friends, stroking my hands across his back to try to warm him up. "I'm sorry."
"You better damn well be," he said, even though he sounded more exhausted than angry. "I've never been so scared my entire life."
A pang of guilt hit me. He must really have been worried for his life to have divulged that. "I'm sorry," I repeated, in a wobbly voice now. My nose was starting to ache and my eyes tried to blink back tears that I knew were coming. "I didn't think... I would have died before doing that to you."
"Don't talk about dying." Dylan raised his head and met my eyes for the first time in a long time. "Doing what?"
"I..." I looked away, ashamed. "I almost killed you."
I felt him jerk in surprise. "What?"
"I'm sorry," I whispered again, as the tears spilled over. I tightened my arms around him, hugging him to me. "I wasn't thinking... I just..."
He brushed a finger over my cheek to get my attention. "What are you talking about?"
"You... you were trying to help me... and I pushed you down," I closed my eyes, unable to look at him, to see the disgust on his face that I had been willing to sacrifice him to save myself. "God... If anything had happened to you... I..." I choked on a sob. "Oh, God... I'm so sorry, Dyl. I'm so sorry..."
He was quiet for a moment. Then I felt him press his lips against my neck, right over my pulse. It took everything in me not to turn my head and seek out his lips with my own. I heard my heartbeat pounding in my ears. He had a girlfriend, I reminded myself. When the silence dragged on, I cracked open my eyes and saw him staring at me seriously. "I don't care about that. It's not your fault."
"How can it not be? I..."
"It's instinct," he interrupted. "Everyone does it. It's not your fault."
I laughed, a little tearfully. "I guess you're used to the people you save trying to drown you, huh?"
He smiled back. "No, you're the first." His voice was teasing, but the guilt hit me again and I opened my mouth to repeat my apology. He shot me a look that had me swallowing my words and divulged, "One of the first things they taught in lifeguard training was how to break free from panicked drowning victims. It's a natural reaction."
Glad that he didn't hate me, I gave into my inclination and nuzzled into his shoulder. Just for a moment. It had been so long since I'd seen him, and his warmth felt good. I'd missed this. I'd missed him.
"Why were you in the water, Tara?"
I didn't want to tell him. It would sound so stupid, especially considering the fact that he had ended up being the one saving me instead.
I sighed. He was like a dog with a bone when he wanted information. Once, I would've been able to distract him with sex, but now... He had a girlfriend. Besides, that part of our lives was long over. "I saw you," I mumbled.
"And decided to join me?" I could hear the scepticism in his tone.
I bit my lip. "You... You went under... and never came back up."
There was a long pause, and then he said, carefully, "And you jumped in to save me?"
"I know it sounds stupid," I snapped, feeling my cheeks heat. "It was stupid. Forget it."
He chuckled. He dipped his head closer to mine, until all that filled my sight were his eyes. I could see each individual brown fleck scattered across the overwhelming blue of his irises. "I think it's sweet." His statement hung in the air around us. His face was too close. Much too close. Then he seemed to come to his senses and pulled back a little, "But you shouldn't have."
"So I should've just left you to die?" I asked, almost scathingly.
He sighed. "I was never in danger of dying."
I clutched at him, wanting – needing – to make him understand. "Accidents happen," I whispered.
The molten look in his eyes froze. "I know," he whispered back, after a few suspended seconds where we just stared, motionless, at each other. "Thank you for caring."
I looked away. "You know I care." I cared too much.
He leaned forward until his forehead was touching mine. "I was so scared when I thought you'd drowned."
I jerked my eyes to meet his, startled.
For a moment, staring into his eyes, knowing that both our guards were down for once, it was as if our friendship had never gone away. As if none of the pain, the blame, had happened. As if he had never fallen for Talia, and she had never died, and the past year of absence had melted away, and I was still the most important person in his life and he was still mine.
Then reality reasserted itself and I cast my eyes downward in an effort to break the eye contact. Unfortunately, seeing his bare chest pressed against my bra-clad one only served to remind me how inappropriate this position was. There was another silence, this one sharp, edgy, crawling with unspoken words.
"We should probably get dressed," I said uncomfortably, after a while. "Annie isn't going to be happy."
Dylan's mouth twisted, as if he had bitten into a slice of lemon. "Under the circumstances... I think she'll understand."
"She must be a saint then," I retorted. I might have been able to understand the need for some human contact right after a traumatising experience, but we were long past 'some' contact. We'd been pressed up against each other for a whole ten minutes – ten minutes too long.
He stared at me then, his blue eyes reflecting a silver of moonlight as he looked down at me. His gaze jerked downwards, towards my lips, then rose back up to meet my eyes. "No," he said softly, "not a saint."
He looked to be in danger of forgetting all those morals he'd preached back then, in that room where he'd removed me so cleanly from his life, so I started to scramble out from under him. "Dylan, get off!"
He looked at me one last time, determined that I meant it, and sat up, pulling us both into a sitting position. His forearms and knees were covered in sand, as were my legs. He let go of me to dust himself down and I took the chance to untangle myself from him and ran to retrieve my hastily discarded clothing. My bra and panties were still wet from my dive into the ocean, but I pulled on my clothes, grimacing at the uncomfortable sensation of having my undergarments sticking to my skin.
Dylan was dressed and waiting when I turned back around. "Well, bye now," I said, trying to be casual, dismissive, as if we hadn't practically been wrapped up in each other just a few minutes ago.
"Wait, Tara," he said, pitching forward to wrap a hand around my elbow.
I half-turned, "Thank you for saving my life, Dylan."
"Why are you being so formal?" Dylan sounded annoyed now. He sounded more like the Dylan I knew now, instead of the Dylan from the past, and this Dylan I could deal with. This Dylan was Talia's; was Annie's.
He had nothing to do with me anymore.
I tugged my elbow out of his grasp. "Dylan... We have nothing to do with each other anymore, remember?"
He came around to stand in my way. I tried not to remember what had happened the last time he'd done that. He'd saved me back then, too, when I'd had a panic attack and he'd driven me home. It seemed that he was always saving me. "You could've died back there."
"But I didn't." I folded my arms across my chest, looking at him – really looking at him now, for the first time since we'd run into each other again. We had never talked about it that last summer, but I'd heard that he'd chosen to go to a university only a short half-hour away from my own. Even though we had been in the same city for the past year, I hadn't seen him around at all. It was a big city. And now, finally seeing him after so long, I could see that the year away at college had changed him. He looked… happier. Damn her, Annie Fordham had been good for him.
"Does it change anything?" I asked softly, feeling suddenly vulnerable. "You're still Talia's..." I paused because I didn't know how to define it anymore. I changed tack, "You have Annie now. And I'm still just a substitute–"
"No," he interrupted fiercely, "never. Never a substitute–"
"That's not what you said." My voice rose to drown his out. Then again in a whisper, "That's not what you said."
He ran a hand over his face, looking pained. "It's not true. I don't know why I said it."
I knew. He had wanted to hurt me, to drive me away, so that he wouldn't have had to look at me and be reminded of Talia that night. I understood, and I could even forgive him for saying it – but I could never forget.
"It doesn't matter," I said flatly, even though it did. It mattered too much. "It doesn't change anything."
He breathed out an impatient breath, "I know I said it, but..."
"Frailty, thy name is Dylan?" I quipped, hiding behind mockery.
"Don't do this, Tara," he sounded tired, at his wits' end. His obvious exhaustion pulled at my heartstrings. I couldn't forget that he had just pulled me out of the sea, after all. I owed him so much – I owed him my life. "I haven't seen you in so long," he said lowly. "And then today..." He leaned forward to grip the top of my arms so tightly that I was sure he could feel my pulse pumping through my veins. "This past year, it's made me realise... You're so important to me. I don't want to lose you."
Unable to help myself, I reached out and touched his face softly. I could feel the roughness of his stubble under my palm and my heart ached. I wanted him so much. I still loved him – so much that my entire being was throbbing in an effort to keep the emotion locked up. But he was wrong. He'd lost me a long time ago.
"I hope you're happy with her, Dyl," I said, choking on my words but utterly sincere. Annie Fordham would help him move past Talia's death, would make him happy – I was sure of that. "She's good for you. Talia would have wanted that."
His eyes were bright with emotion. "What about you?"
I dropped my hand and almost immediately missed his warmth. My fingers curled into a fist. "What about me?"
"Is that what you want?"
I laughed, a little sadly. "What does it matter what I want? We're talking about you."
He took a step closer. "It matters."
I moved back. "I hope you're happy with her," I parroted.
"I'm not with Annie, Tara. I haven't been for a long time."
My heart stilled. "What?" My voice came out in a whisper. I couldn't manage anything else.
His lips quirked. "I broke up with her a long time ago," he said. "We lasted… what, a week?"
A week. I had been gone within the week of our last conversation. Not that it would've made any difference. He had been right. We'd been killing each other slowly. We'd needed to be separate to heal. "What do you want me to say, Dylan?"
"Stop calling me Dylan."
"It's your name." I scowled. He was being ridiculous.
He fixed steady blue eyes on me, "You never used to call me that."
"Things change," I said, avoiding his gaze. He knew that better than anyone else. Everything had changed.
"I've missed you, Tara," Dylan said softly.
I bit my lip, but I couldn't not give him the words. "I've missed you too."
"That last time..." His eyes darkened, and I knew he was remembering the disastrous last conversation we'd had. "I didn't want to leave things like that."
"Yeah, well..." I scuffed one foot in the sand, "There wasn't much left to say after that."
He moved toward me, his eyes oddly bright. "Sometimes I wish..."
I knew what he was going to say even before he said it. I gave a short shake of my head. "No. You were right. We wouldn't have worked."
"Who's to say for sure?"
I shook my head again. Maybe it was that too much time had passed, and the passage of time had softened the edges of his memories of our time together, because he was viewing everything through rose-coloured glasses. There had been nothing worth salvaging in our dysfunctional affair.
"You left," he said. It wasn't an accusation, just a matter-of-fact statement. And he was right. I had left.
"I had to," I found myself trying to justify my actions a year ago. After Dylan had gotten with Annie and I had quit my job, there had been nothing holding me back. It had been a full two weeks before the official start of orientation week at college, but I'd packed up what little I'd needed and made the move early. It had been the right choice. I'd spent those two weeks exploring the city, learning how to enjoy life again. "I needed to leave to start to move on... to forget."
Dylan pressed his lips together. I knew what he wanted to ask, and elaborated, "About what happened that night Talia died..." I realised then that it was the first time I'd said it out loud. "And... my feelings for you."
He took a deep breath. "So… Did it work?"
"I don't think I'll ever stop feeling guilty," I said honestly, "but it gets better every day."
He nodded like he understood. Maybe he did. Maybe he felt the same way. The guilt would never fully fade, but we were healing. "And... About the other thing?"
I smiled a little. "I'm not that much of a sucker for rejection."
It was an evasion, and we both knew it.
"We've never really talked about that," he said quietly.
I didn't say anything.
"If I'd known, way back then..." But he couldn't even say that he wouldn't have rejected me, because we both knew that he would have. He had loved Talia from the start. I'd never even been in the running.
"It's okay," I said, laughing wryly, "I know you ever only saw her. It's okay."
"You were special to me too, Tara." He said this in a soft voice, almost as if it was a secret he was too afraid to reveal. "I didn't want to lose you." But he had, inevitably, when he had chosen Talia. Because I couldn't have stood staying such close friends with him when I was in love with him and he was dating my sister.
I stared down at the sand so that I wouldn't have to look at him. In a sense, he had been right, the night of Talia's memorial service. I had been jealous. Just not of him. But it had been my jealousy that had broken up our friendship, and it didn't change the fact that I had started avoiding him first. He'd been angry that night – he had called me selfish. And I was. I had chosen to protect myself from the hurt that seeing them happily together would bring. I had chosen myself over our friendship.
"Tara..." He moved forward but hesitated. His reached out with his hand only to stop short and withdraw it a moment later.
"It doesn't matter," I said now. "It's all ancient history."
"Is it?" He had been hesitant, but my statement had pushed him to a decision. Now he strode determinedly up to me and without courtesy pulled me to meet his lips.
His kiss was different. It was gentler, slower, in a way it had never been when we'd been together all those times after Talia had died. Now, a year later, he was kissing me so gently that I felt my heart swell with emotion. This was the Dylan that I had missed. The Dylan that I loved. Because I did still love him. I loved him so much that my heart could've burst from it.
To my horror, I found my eyes filling with tears. When they overflowed and ran down my cheeks, Dylan tasted them. He pulled away immediately, wiping at the wetness with his thumbs.
"I'm sorry," he said, looking helpless in the face of these waterworks. "Did I hurt you?"
I opened my mouth to deny it, but all that came out was a strangled sob. Incorrectly, he took that to mean a 'yes'.
"I'm sorry," he said, in a strained voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to… God," his expression twisted in self-loathing, "I can never get it right, can I? I always just end up hurting you."
"No," I finally forced out. "It's not you..."
His eyelashes dropped down to veil his eyes. "I'm sorry. Maybe I should… go."
Without thinking, I reached out and latched onto his sleeve. "Don't," I whispered. Then I bit my tongue, because I hadn't meant to do or say that. This would make the final goodbye a lot harder.
He froze, but only for a moment. In the next moment, he'd cupped my face with both hands and was bending down to look me straight in the eye. "And why is that?" he whispered back.
"I…" I couldn't say it. Three measly words, and I couldn't say them. I'd said them once, and he'd shot me down and walked out of my life. If that happened again, I would never heal from the hurt. "I don't know," I whispered finally, looking down to avoid his piercing blue gaze.
His hands fell away from my face and he straightened, looking almost… disappointed.
"I came back to say goodbye," I found myself saying, just to fill the silence. I saw his lips part and rushed on, "to say goodbye to… Talia. After this summer... I'm never coming back."
There was a long pause, and then, "What about me?"
I finally chanced a look up at him and saw that my words had hurt him in some unfathomable way. When I didn't answer immediately, he pressed on, "What about me? Do I get a goodbye, too? Or not even that?"
"I..." I remembered how I'd decided to stay away from him, just minutes before I'd seen him sink into the ocean and not come back up and that had changed everything. "I don't know."
"Ten years of friendship," he said, almost disbelievingly, "and I don't warrant a goodbye?"
I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the weather. "Ten years," I repeated. We had met at the age of six. We were now nineteen. Even not counting that last year at college, there were two years missing. "You said it yourself. We're not friends anymore... We haven't been for a long time."
He was silent then. We stood looking at each other, the only sound filling the air the crashing of the waves. When the silence continued to drag on, I turned and left.
He let me.