Sleep was a long time coming that night. I was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Thinking.
What had Dylan really meant to me, in those last two years?
I was so deep in thought that it took me a while to realise that there was a suspicious scratching noise coming from somewhere outside. All coherent thought flying from my mind, I sat up, the covers pooling at my waist, and listened.
Then came a loud crash from Talia's old room that had me jumping out of bed in fright.
I reached for my phone on the bed stand, then stopped. There was no one I could call. My father was probably at work, or I would've heard footsteps on the landing already. There was no way anyone could have missed that crash. And since it had come from Talia's room, where none of us ever set foot in anymore, it could only be one of two things: a burglar, or…
Somewhere along that train of thought, I had padded out of my room. Now I found myself standing in front of Talia's old bedroom door. I reached out to touch the wooden surface.
Talia's old room.
I hesitated, my hand on the doorknob. I hadn't been in there since... Then, clenching my teeth, I twisted the knob and the door swung open.
I didn't know what I had expected – some ghostly figure of Talia, maybe? – but it definitely wasn't the sight of Dylan, in a heap on the floor by the window.
Under my gaze, he picked himself off the floor and dusted himself down. "Guess I'm a little rusty," he said with a lopsided smile.
I stared at him. "What the hell?"
"I rang the bell. But you didn't answer, and the door was locked…" He shrugged. "So I came in from here. The tree's still there, you know."
I walked over to the window and saw that, yes, indeed, the tree was still there. I continued staring out blindly until my vision started to blur.
I was in Talia's old room. She had slept here, lived here, let boys in through the window here – until one day she just hadn't anymore. At some point, someone had packed up her room. Other than the boxes stacked against the wall, there was no sign of Talia's previous occupancy of the room. But I could still see it in my mind's eye: the rumpled bed, strewn with pieces of clothing as she'd picked out an outfit for that last night, the messy vanity littered with bottles of cosmetics and that perfume she'd loved so much... Her hairbrush. That last pair of earrings she had worn. The stacks of heels she had buried away in the closet. The romance novels that she'd hidden in the bedside drawer.
Her life, her entire life... Now packed away in sterile cardboard boxes.
I didn't feel the hot tears streaking down my cheeks until Dylan pulled me to him and kissed them gently. I turned my face away and tried to push against him so that he would let go, but he held on tight.
"Don't," I said, my voice all choked up, "not in her room... Not in Talia's..."
"She's gone, Tara," he said softly, his lips brushing against the shell of my ear.
I pushed him away stubbornly; it was the principle of the thing. Talia had tried to step back for me, it was the least I could do to not rub it in her face.
Dylan followed me back to my room.
When the door was shut, he leaned against it and looked at me. "So..."
We stared at each other.
"Why did you come tonight?" I asked finally.
"Why did you let me in?" He countered.
I was perplexed. "I didn't – you came in through the window–"
"I meant your room."
When I had no ready reply to that, he moved toward determinedly, like a panther stalking its prey. "If we are no longer friends..." He stopped right in front of me, blue eyes serious. "Why did you let me in?"
"I... You..." I didn't have an answer for him.
"A year is a long time," he said.
I didn't know what he was getting at, but I nodded. So much had changed since we had both gone off to college. I liked to think that we'd both matured – we were able to stand here, in my room, and have a civilised conversation. That hadn't been possible just a year ago. I smiled wryly. All our conversations back then had inevitably delineated into either sex or competitions to see who could hurt the other the most.
"This year away... It's made me think." He cleared his throat, "About us."
"There is no us," I said faintly. "We were just trying to forget."
"We were just lying to ourselves," he corrected, "about what it meant."
I shook my head. He had always been a romantic, that was why he had been so good for Talia. "You're putting too much of a good slant on things, Dylan. It wasn't like that at all."
"Then what was it like? Tell me."
"It was us, trying to forget," I repeated. "Me, trying to justify it by telling myself that I loved you more."
I managed to silence him for a moment with that statement. "Was that all it was?" He asked after a long pause. "Self-justification?"
I stood staring at him, my eyes hooded.
He suddenly pulled me to him, a rough motion that had me colliding with his chest. "I love you," he said, his fingers digging into my hips, as if trying to brand me with those words. "I know you're over me, damn it, but I love you."
I pushed him away out of sheer shock. "What are you...?"
"I love you, Tara," he repeated stubbornly.
"Stop saying that."
"I won't." I was backing away, but he followed me every inch of the way, slowly but surely backing me into the corner. "Because it's true."
I shook my head again. "It must be transference, or something."
He threw up his hands in exasperation. "Have you been taking Psychology 101? It's nothing like that."
"You're not over Talia," I said, my voice wobbling, because it hurt to have him declare his love for me when I knew that it wasn't true. "And I look like her..."
"You don't," he said softly, sliding his arms around me, "not in the ways that matter."
"I…" I bit my lip, "My eyes… They look like hers. You said so yourself. You'll look into my eyes... and think of her." Just like I would always think of her. Every single day, when I looked into the mirror and saw those green eyes staring back through the glass, I reminded myself of her.
He shook his head. "I was an idiot."
I smiled, a little sadly. "You don't need to lie now–"
"I'm not." He lowered his head to look me directly in the eyes. "They're not entirely the same, you know."
"What..." My mouth was dry. "What are you talking about?"
"Your eyes." He stared into them, observing, thinking, his own eyes pensive. "Yeah, they're the same shade of green, but... You have these little flecks of blue that she doesn't... And your expression, the look in your eyes... It's all different."
I stared back at him, my heart thudding erratically in my chest. "You don't have to lie, Dylan. I know you feel bad about–"
"I'm not lying!" He exploded in frustration, grasping me by the shoulders as if he would like nothing better than to shake some sense into me. "You're different. She's her; you're you. I've never seen the two of you as part of each other. You're–"
"–separate," I finished in a whisper, because it was what I'd always wished for someone else to understand. I'd never told a soul, though – not even Talia. Not even Dylan, back when we'd been so close that we'd shared almost everything. And yet, he knew. He'd figured it out.
"You've always been separate to me," he whispered back. "Tara..." He paused significantly, before continuing, "Talia."
I felt my eyes fill with tears. He got it.
"So when I say I love you," he continued in a quiet voice, "I mean you. Not Talia. Not as a substitute. You."
He sounded sincere. It would take a long time before I would be able to believe him wholeheartedly. But for now...
"I still love you," I said. The tears spilled over onto my cheeks. He leaned in and kissed them away.
"I don't want this to be another series of meaningless hook-ups, Tara." He hesitated, then continued, "I don't think I will ever be able to… to forget completely. She was a huge part of my life."
"I know," I murmured. I knew he had loved her. And a part of his heart was still with her – he had buried it with her, and I knew there was a chance I could never take it away. A part of him would forever be hers. And I couldn't begrudge her that. If Talia had lived, he would never have been mine, not even after I had drunkenly accosted him at that party two years ago, the night that Talia had died.
He made an impatient noise, shaking his head. "God, what am I saying? I must be the biggest asshole ever. She was your sister. She was a bigger part of your life than she was mine."
I grabbed his arm. "Don't. Don't say that. You were a big part of her life." I forced myself to meet his eyes as I said this next part, "You were the love of her life."
A stricken look flashed through his eyes, and I knew I had been right. He still wasn't as over her as he'd tried to seem. The sheen of tears lining his eyes broadcasted the truth loud and clear.
I dropped my gaze. "I'm sorry. For coming between you." Left unspoken was the fact that she might've still been alive had I not acted so outrageously that day. Every action had an equal and opposite reaction. Talia had paid for mine.
"Don't," he said, cupping my shoulders now, waiting until I looked back at him. "Don't play 'what-if'."
I closed my eyes and breathed out a sigh. I knew that, but sometimes it was hard not to. There were so many things I wanted to do over... So many things I would've changed.
"I know," I said instead.
Dylan reached out to cup my face in his hands. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that he still wore the watch Talia had bought for him on his left wrist. "We'll take it a day at a time. Can that be enough for now?"
I reached up and wound my arms around his neck, even though my heart was slowly breaking inside with the knowledge that, no matter what, Talia would always be a ghost between us. But still, if this was all I could get, I would grab hold of it with both hands and hope that he would never want to let go. And maybe, between the two of us, we could somehow make it work.
"It's enough," I whispered, leaning forward to kiss him and tasting the salty remnants of my own tears on his lips. "It has to be."