Read Ripple Online

Authors: Heather Smith Meloche

Ripple (20 page)

Her pouty lips are turned far down. Her eyes beg me to understand. “I'm a mess, Jack. I get it. But I'm telling
. That's why you're different. Juliette doesn't even know about the things I do. The only other person who knows is Ty Blevens, because he caught me a couple weeks ago with a guy at Coffee Haven. He's been threatening to tell everyone at school unless I deliver his drugs to Cornish Street.”

“He's blackmailing you?”

She nods, my question sending a couple more tears down her cheeks. “So, I know what you saw today at the car wash looked really bad. But I need you to know that while I was sitting in that truck with that guy, something changed. I didn't feel any better. I just felt dirty. And tired. I'm so tired, Jack.”

Her tears fall freely. And I should hold her and comfort her. But once again, I've come up against something I want to fix but know I can't. She needs to work this out on her own.

“And I was moving through that car wash,” she says, “with this guy mauling all over me, and for the first time ever, I thought about how there's got to be something more than just that. You know? Something deeper and real that helps me, maybe, feel better about everything.”

She gives me a pointed look, her tear-stained face as intense as I've ever seen. “So, I'm sorry, Jack. Really. I'm so sorry you saw what you did. But please know that I think you are totally something amazing. You make me laugh, and you push me to see things in a different way. For some reason, you actually care what I'm thinking about. Of all the guys I've ever been with, no matter how long I've been with them, you're the only one I've ever felt connected to. And you didn't take advantage of me for one single second.” She sniffles, wipes her face with her jacket sleeve. Her head bows and she looks bent over and broken.

I stare at the dark water and think about how I know she's far from innocent. But I suddenly realize she's apologizing for a thousand things she had very little control over, a ton of shit that happened even way before she was born and led up to this moment, making her, and me, who we are.

It's ridiculous.

And pathetic.

And like most things that make me ultra-uncomfortable, embarrassed, and sad, it makes me laugh. Hard.

“You're laughing?” Her expression is confused and hurt. “At me?”

I give her a wry smile. “It's chaos theory.”

Her face tightens to even more confused. “Is that the theory of what goes on in your head?”

I lift a finger, genuinely smiling now. “Good try, but no. Chaos theory is the theory that a single event can begin a cataclysmic series of events. Like, actions have reactions. Newton taught us that. What Sir Isaac wasn't focused on is that there are no controls over where that reaction will stop reacting. Sometimes it peters out, and sometimes it goes on forever and becomes something much bigger.”

Her head cocks slightly. “And that's funny?”

I look hard into her eyes. They are wickedly blue and intense, clawing into me, really wanting to understand.

“It's funny in a pathetic way,” I say. “Because we blame ourselves for most of what we do. We beat ourselves up. We talk shit to ourselves about ourselves. I mean, you and I, we have our issues. You have yours,” I say, not wanting to repeat the ugliness of it, “and I guess I have a little problem with reacting to things in a destructive way. They seem like different problems.” I shake my head. “But they aren't. Not really. Not if you think about chaos theory.”

I reach to the ground, pick up a handful of stones.

“My mom's a mess,” I say. “The drinking, delusions.” As I understate Mom's condition, my tongue runs against the cold, smooth line of my lip ring. With a flick of my wrist, I throw a stone at the pond. “Her father drank like her. Might have been just as crazy, from what my aunts say.”

Ripples spread out from the center of the pond's surface.

“And her father's mother was a little weird and liked her morphine.”

I toss in another rock, the ripples multiplying.

“I would expect, Tessa, that your parents' parents were crammed full of issues of their own, and maybe their parents, and maybe their parents before that. Addiction is a fucked-up pattern. It's chaos theory.”

I glance at her standing next to me. “And then there's us, Tessa.” We're so close, her tiny breaths warming my face. “We're under stress. Under pressure. We're part of the pattern. And we react to it in our own, habitual way so we can get through each grueling moment.”

Her eyes pierce me like she's looking right into my brain, hooking us together. She gets it. Tessa Leighton absolutely gets me.

She gives a weak smile. “Thank you. I mean, for looking at it that way.” Then her fingers tickle my palm as she collects the remaining stones from my hand, and she points toward my neck. “What does your tattoo mean?”

I swipe my finger over the
the way I did a hundred times when I first got it and it was scabbed and still painful.

“It means ‘The world wants to be deceived.'”

She breaks into a smile and whips the stones at the water until they sink fast, too many chaotic ripples to keep track of. When she turns back to me, her face is serious again, the pale light of the moon making her cheekbones, her chin, the ridge of her nose look sharp and pronounced. “I also have to figure out what to do with Seth. Truthfully, I'm afraid to let him go. I'm scared to be on my own. But maybe that's the best reason to break up with him. I rely on him like the other guys. Probably more. And it would hurt him if he knew about the guys I see behind his back.”

She laughs in an incredulous way, shaking her head. “I can't believe I just told you all that.” She shrugs and gives me a half smile. “But thank you for listening.”

“I can't say it's easy to hear. But I dig your honesty.” And I think how, even though it's a lot for me to take in, I actually don't see her any differently. I mean, some of the greatest people in the world are seriously flawed. Like Mom. I'm just glad Tessa trusts me enough to tell me how she feels.

“So,” she says, cautious, “now that you know more than anyone, please don't stop talking to me.” Her words squeeze at my heart until I can't breathe.

“Listen,” I tell her honestly. “If I say I'm good with just being your friend, I'll be lying, Tessa. Even with all your problems, I like you. A lot. But you've got some serious stuff to work through. So as much as I want to kiss you and do all kinds of wild, kinky things with you, I can't go there.”

She nods, her eyes begging. “I know. It's not fair of me to ask this of you. But you're the only one who even slightly gets what I'm going through. I just . . . I don't want to see you walk away.”

She's so close to me and she's just told me she might break up with her boyfriend. I let my forehead fall gently against hers and give a huge sigh. “All right. Let's call whatever we have Strong Friends Without Benefits. I'll be here for talking things out, but that's as far as it can go.”

“Thank you,” she says.

“My pleasure. But not
much pleasure.”

And she laughs in that genuine way I love.


This moment is so simple—our foreheads pressing together. His breath mingling with my own. For the moment, I feel safe and content. But I have to get back home.

“I should go.” I step away, giving Jack an apologetic look. “I'm sure I'll get yelled at for being late already. Still, I'm really glad we talked.”

“Me too.” Jack flips on the flashlight again. We make our way up the hill and pass Ryan's grave. Jack waves. “See ya soon, buddy.”

I give him a sympathetic smile and wonder what it would feel like to lose a sibling. Willow and I fight, but I can't imagine life without her.

Jack starts the car to take us back to the hospital, where my car sits. When the hospital is only a moment away, I use the time to talk about something way lighter than the last half hour. “When did you learn to play the violin?”

“I interned in Austria with an orchestra,” he says.

My mouth drops open. “Really?”

“No.” He flashes a smile. “I taught myself. My violin was a
beat-up shell I got at the flea market. I restrung it and stained it. Then I figured out how to play it.”

“Was it hard to learn?”

He gives a half shrug. “There are much harder things to learn than the violin. Besides, I like a challenge.”

“How often do you play?”

“Not often enough. That's why it was so cool to play at that party last week. Sometimes, I take it to the senior center and play for them. They appreciate it, and I always feel like I've done something really great—for them and me—when I leave.”

“You volunteer your precious free time to make old people happy.” I say it like I'm ticking it off an incredibly long, unbelievable list of all the things Jack S. Dalton is. “So does your middle initial stand for ‘selfless'?”

He gives that smug smile again. “Among the ever-popular ‘sage-like,' ‘skilled beyond belief,' and ‘sexy.'”

“What's an
-word for arrogant?” I ask.

He winks, flashing another smile.

“You know,” I say cautiously, “you're way too smart and talented to not go to college.”

Jack's jaw tightens. “And you're way too creative to not be working on your art every day.”

“Ah, touché. Well, maybe if I'm lucky, I'll be able to fit it in sometime soon.” I've been considering questioning Grandma Leighton about why she ditched art. Her work is so good that she had to be passionate about it. So maybe I can use what she says to convince her I shouldn't be her LCH protégé.

“Well, maybe not going to college next year will just be a school hiatus for me.”

“Did you even apply to schools?”

His expression turns rigid. “Listen, Tessa, everyone's path is different. And just like everything about me, mine's a little twisted. I'll find my way to wherever I'm supposed to go.”

I realize his twisted path has a lot to do with his mom's twisted mind, and I wonder how much care his mom needs. When I came to the door, I watched how protective he was of her. The pressure on him must be huge. But he deserves massive respect for it.

Jack turns into the hospital parking lot and asks, “Can you put that flashlight in a pocket behind one of the seats?”

“Sure.” I reach behind his seat and thrust the flashlight into the pocket. My fingers snag on something that comes out along with my hand. A chill rips through me.

It's Emma Hadley's trademark fuchsia hat. The one she was wearing the night she got hit. I gawk in disbelief at the woven, elfish stretch of yarn, the puffy wool ball dangling from the end. On one side, the wool is ripped and hanging loose. Traces of blood have dried against some of the strands.

I've lost my breath. Her hat in this car means Jack's mom . . . My fingers and arms turn numb, frozen from shock. But Jack seems oblivious as he pulls through the lot toward my Civic.

“So,” he says, “inside the hospital, there's this totally wicked-looking storage room in the basement. It's like a scene from the best horror movie ever.”

His perfect angles cut into the darkness, the lights of the hospital casting thick strands of white against his already pale face. He doesn't see how my mouth hangs open, my heart raging in my ears. My mind whirls with how I'm going to tell him what I've got in my hands, what I've just found. The hat. The blood. Emma. His mom.

“I mean, like seriously, chains hanging from the ceiling and grimy walls and everything. If I didn't care about pissing my new boss off, because she's totally cool”—he parks his mom's car next to my Civic—“I'd sneak you down there and—” He turns to look at me, stops. “What? Oh my God, Tessa, what's wrong?”

I shake my head, holding up the ripped wool hat in my hands.

“I don't understand. What is that?”

I shake my head again. This sucks. How do I say this? I need a plan for right after this comes out of my mouth. I'll let him process for a second. Then throw my arms around him. Then tell him we'll find a way to make this as easy on him and his mom as possible.

He leans toward me. “Tessa, what's wrong?” I take a deep breath, and like the breaking of glass on a giant aquarium, I let the words gush out.

“I found this in the pocket behind your seat.” My hands are shaking.

He looks at it, still confused. “So?”

“It's Emma's. She's worn it for years. She had it on the night she got hit. I saw her with it on. I passed her, and I didn't stop.” Guilt sits thick and icy inside me. “I should have stopped. None of this would have happened if I'd stopped. I could have taken her home. She wouldn't have been in the dark. Everything would be fine, but I kept driving.”

Jack still looks confused. His mouth slightly open, his eyelids tight as he eyes the hat in my hands.

I flip the hat so the frayed wool strands come into view, the speckles of crusted blood. “This was in the seat's back pocket, Jack.” I push the words at him. “Was your mom home when Emma was hit by that car?”

The change is instant, his confusion turning to wild rage, an anger I've never seen in him before. His jaw hardens, the muscles rippling. “Get out of the car.”

“What?” It's my turn to be confused.

“Get the fuck out of this car, Tessa. Now!”

My eyes widen. His anger flows off him in waves. Instinctively, I lean away, my hand finding the door handle. But I hesitate. This is too much for him to deal with alone. It would be too much for me. “I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't mean to make you angry. I—”

“Get out!”

Startled, I rip open the door and step out into the cold night.

“Leave the hat,” Jack says.

My fingers squeeze the wool. I glance down, not wanting to let it go. I feel like I should return it to Emma. To make her whole again. To apologize for not stopping to help when I could.

But Jack's expression is stony, demanding. I put the hat onto the passenger's seat. Let my eyes flit to his one more time. But he's turned his head. And even before I can close the door, he puts the car into gear and squeals out of the hospital parking lot.

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