Authors: Melanie Harlow
Tags: #Romance, #new adult, #Adult, #Contemporary Romance
But the truth was, I didn’t want to be alone.
Was it wrong to take her up on her offer just for a little company? Would it be too misleading? She was pretty and sweet, but dating was out of the question. She deserved better than me. And I couldn’t see her as a fuck friend, either. She was too good for that.
Keep it in your pants asshole. She said a drink, that’s all.
So while I selected and paid for my Adirondack chairs, I made up my mind to get to know her the way I wished I would have in school, and not to let either my attraction for her or my irrational fear of hurting her get in the way. I’d keep my compulsions in check, and stay in the moment.
For a guy like me, it was a pretty fucking tall order.
But today was a good day.
• • •
She pulled up next to me as I slid the heavy boxes containing the chairs into the back of my truck. “What do you think?” she asked through the open windows of an old Ford Explorer. It surprised me—I’d pictured a girl like her driving a much flashier car. Although her clothing today had surprised me too. I couldn’t ever recall seeing Skylar Nixon in sweats before. They looked good on her, though. She was small but curvy, not waif thin like a lot of the beautiful women were in New York. Skylar looked like the kind of girl you could go hiking with, but then you could take her out for ice cream afterward, and maybe she’d order a double scoop.
It gave me an idea.
“Hey, have you had dinner yet?” It was close to six, and I hadn’t eaten. A restaurant was always a trigger risk, but if ever I was going to take one, it should be on a day like today.
“No.” She glanced at the plastic bag on the passenger seat. “I was trying to get this last chore done first, but I don’t care about it now.”
“Would you maybe want to grab a bite?”
She smiled. “Sure. Place?”
“What do you feel like?”
She thought for a second. “I wouldn’t say no to a cheeseburger.”
“How about Sleder’s?” I suggested. “Meet there?”
“OK. Or we could drive together,” she said with a shrug. “I’ll ride with you and you can drop me here afterward.”
“All right.” I said it, but the hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I moved around to the passenger side to open the door for her.
“Thanks.” She hopped up into the cab and I shut the door, my heart pumping a little too quickly for comfort.
And then the voice spoke up.
Maybe this was a mistake. Now you’ll be alone with her in your car, and—
No. No. This is a good day. Please don’t ruin it, I begged the voice. Please let me enjoy her company without complications. One evening. It’s all I ask. One normal evening with a friend, the first one in a year.
I slid behind the wheel and shut the door, feeling the tension in my shoulders, my arms, my jaw. Sticking the key in the ignition, I put both hands on the wheel and gripped tight.
“Hey.” She put her hand on my arm, and I couldn’t even look at it. “Hey. Look at me.”
Reluctantly, I met her eyes. Their color looked even sweeter in the soft pink light of the sunset. I flexed my fingers on the wheel. My composure was slipping, and she knew it.
You’re going to scare her. Fucking quit it.
But how could I explain my erratic behavior to her without scaring her? Before I could get a handle on what to say, she spoke up again.
“I don’t know you at all, Sebastian. And maybe girls shouldn’t jump into trucks with strange men who could be serial killers. But you know what? I need a nice night out with a friend. And for whatever reason, I trust you. Somehow I get the feeling that it’s
Damn, she was intuitive. And a chatterbox, just like her sister. For a second, I felt like smiling—how did those two ever have a conversation without talking over each other? I cleared my throat. “Yeah.”
“Would it be better if I drove myself to Sleder’s?” She took her hand from my arm and put it on the door handle. “I really don’t mind. I shouldn’t have just assumed I could jump in with you.”
“No,” I said, too quickly and loudly. After a deep breath, I turned my upper body to face her.
Better to tell her on a good day. It’ll come out clearer.
“Please stay. I’m just going to be upfront about this, Skylar. And if you want to drive yourself after I tell you, or if you want to forget dinner altogether and just go home alone, I’ll understand.”
I’ll die a little, but I’ll understand.
“OK.” She put her hands in her lap and looked at me expectantly. Her trust in me was so endearing, suddenly I couldn’t resist a little joke.
“I’m really a serial killer.”
For a second, her face blanched, but she recovered quickly, slapping me on the arm. “You big jerk! Come on. Talk to me. I know we weren’t friends in school or anything, but we’ve at least known each other for a long time. Fourth grade, right? You came in the middle of the year.”
She was right. We’d moved up here from Chicago after my mom died to live closer to my dad’s family. “You remember that?”
“Yes. And I remember that you were really good at math and once stayed in at recess to help me with lattice multiplication.”
“I did?” Holy shit, how could I have forgotten that? I was touched that she remembered something about me—something positive and not odd. The tension between my shoulders eased a little. “OK, I’m not a serial killer. But the problem is that sometimes I think I could be.”
“What?” She looked at me strangely, then glanced behind her out the window, like she was considering making a run for it. Not that I blamed her. I hesitated…was telling her the right thing? If she bolted, wouldn’t I feel even worse?
Stop fucking second guessing yourself. Just tell her.
“It’s this glitch in my brain,” I finally said. “A fear of doing harm lodges there and refuses to leave. I’ve read that other people have these thoughts occasionally, a fleeting image of doing something completely out of character, something violent and horrible, but then it passes as quickly as it comes. Not for me. When that kind of thought enters my brain, it takes up permanent real estate, and nothing I do or say can evict it.”
“Like what kind of harm?” she asked cautiously.
I couldn’t tell her about choking her—I just couldn’t. “It’s usually something specific,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. “For example, I used to refuse to pick up knives in the kitchen at home if anyone else was around because I was scared I’d lose my mind and stab someone. In fact, I made my father hide the sharp knives, and I’d only use plastic.”
Her jaw dropped. “What? But you know you wouldn’t stab anyone.”
“Doesn’t matter. I feel like since the thought is there, that must mean I really want to do it and I’m not the person I thought I was.” I braced myself, waited for her to say
You’re not the person I thought you were either, so I’m getting the fuck out of here.
“That’s awful,” she said softly. “Have you always felt like that?”
“It started when I was about eight, but I didn’t really get diagnosed until my mid-teens. And all the stuff I used to do, that I still sometimes do, the counting and all that, the obsessions with certain numbers—somehow my brain thinks that helps. It relieves the anxiety for the time being and makes me feel safe, makes me feel other people are safe.”
She nodded slowly, taking it all in. “And the…germ thing? The hand washing?”
So she does remember that. “That’s related too. Those are visible, compulsive aspects of OCD, the ones people tend to focus on, but for me, at least at this point in my life, the worst are the obsessive thoughts. I’m usually able to manage the other stuff.”
“Can’t you just…” She flipped a hand in the air. “Shove them out of your mind? Like, think about something else? That’s what I do.”
I shook my head. “I wish I could, but not only is that impossible for me, the more I try to do that, the worse it gets.”
“God, Sebastian, I had no idea. That must be so hard to live with.”
“It is.” It felt surprisingly easy to open up to her. The only other person I’d talked to like this in the last few years were therapists. I sure as hell hadn’t ever talked to a woman on a date this way. But it felt good. “You know that voice in your head that knows all your deepest fears and apprehensions, the one that knows exactly how to make you doubt yourself, the one that refuses to leave you alone until you feel so on edge that you can’t even function?”
“Yeah,” she said quietly. “I hate that voice.”
I regarded her a moment. “What does yours say?”
She sighed. “That I’m stupid. That I’m a failure. That I’m never going to be as successful as my sisters and I should just stop trying.”
Her candor surprised me, as did her doubts about herself. On the outside, Skylar Nixon appeared to have everything going for her. But I knew better than anyone that you can never tell what demons someone is fighting. “And you know that’s not true. But it’s hard to ignore, isn’t it? For me, it’s impossible. I have to learn to accept it as part of me without being its victim, without sacrificing my entire life to it.”
Or worse, someone else’s
, I thought, hearing the sound of Diana’s anguished sobs behind a locked bedroom door.
She tilted her head, her expression curious. “How do you do it? Medication?”
I refocused on the woman in front of me. “That’s part of it, but the meds don’t cure it. I think the bigger help, for me anyway, is the therapy.” I took a deep breath and exhaled. “I have good days and bad. Today is good.”
She smiled. “I think so too.”
• • •
It might have been a good day, but walking into a restaurant with Skylar still made me edgy. We were seated at a four-top table, and she sat adjacent to me, which put her closer than if she’d sat in the chair across from mine. People were staring at us, and they were probably wondering what a girl like her was doing with an eccentric like me. I wasn’t stupid—I knew rumors had gone around after I’d returned from New York, especially since one of my sisters-in-law has a big mouth, but I was used to not caring what people thought. Skylar, though, kept her head down, her hair hanging in her face. Was she ashamed to be seen with me? If so, then why had she suggested a drink? This was a mistake.
“Are you OK?” she asked, her eyes concerned. “I’m sorry people are staring at us,” she said. “It’s my fault, and it’s probably making you feel weird.”
“Your fault? I think it’s my fault.”
Her eyes went wide. “Your fault? Why would it be your fault? I’m the one who made an ass of myself on national TV. My God, I drunk-rode a mechanical bull for seven seconds.”
“Fuck,” I said with a straight face. “That’s a horrible number.”
She looked confused, and then it registered. “Oh, ha ha ha.” She slapped my arm. “I’m glad my humiliation is so amusing.”
Laughing a little at her red face, I assured her I had never heard of the show and couldn’t care less about it, nor did I care what other people in here might be whispering about her.
“Thank you. I wish more people cared less. I keep getting the evil eye from all corners of the room.” We sat back as our server set two plates in front of us and warned us they were hot.
“You know who you are,” I said once we were alone again. “Fuck them.”
She smiled ruefully. “I wish I could have that attitude. I know I shouldn’t care about what people think, but easier said than done.”
“Yeah. I know that feeling.”
She gave me a sympathetic half-smile and picked up her cheeseburger. “So you had a good day today. Tell me about it.”
While we ate, I told her about how I’d hung a hammock between two birches that morning and took a nap in it this afternoon.
“I love naps,” she enthused, munching a french fry. “Any day with a nap in it is automatically better.”
“Agreed.” For a moment, I indulged in a fantasy of the two of us in my hammock, Skylar lying on top of me, head on my chest, her bare feet tangled with mine, the leaves shading us from the afternoon sun. I’d play with her hair and she’d sigh softly, and I’d feel her body melt into mine. We could fall asleep to the sounds of the birds and and the wind, and the water, and—
Fuck. I wish things were different.
I picked up my beer and took a long pull. No sense in thinking like that. I was who I was. “So did you have a good day?”
“I guess so. I worked this morning, and then I went shopping for something to wear to the reunion.”
“Ours. Our ten-year high school. It’s this Saturday. I was going to ask you if you were going.” She picked up her wine glass.
“Uh, no. No fucking way.” I took another drink and shook my head as I set the bottle down. “There’s no one there I’d want to see.”
“Oh.” Her face fell, which she tried to hide by taking a long sip of wine. Several long sips.
“Let me rephrase that,” I said, sorry I’d hurt her feelings. “I’m looking at the only person I’d want to see.”