I had to take a piss. It had been a hard day—not the hardest of my life, but right up there. Ellie and I had gotten wasted to make up for it. And now both of us had to use the bathroom at the exact same moment.
“I hhhhhave ta use the pisser, too. Ladies first,” Ellie announced, standing up from the coffee table and leaving our two person game of Taboo. It was something we often played after a long night of drinking, and tonight we’d especially needed something routine. “You men have it easy. You have bigger bladders.”
“Don’t kid yourself,” I joked. “You’re just as much of a man as I am.”
She laughed before feigning seriousness. “Shut up, Noah,” she said, swaying as she moved for the bathroom.
Ellie was a lightweight, as much as she liked to pretend she wasn’t, and I moved after her in hopes that I’d save her from wobbling into the wall. My attempt was useless, because by the time I stood to my feet, she'd already disappeared into the bathroom. And by this point, all this talk about peeing had me really needing to go now. So I marched up the stairs, heading for one of the other bathrooms.
The Turner's house had three levels, and in my drunken stupor I ended up all the way upstairs. How the hell did that happen? Ellie's parents and two sisters must have gone to bed hours ago, because it was dead quiet upstairs. The kind of dead quiet that made my skin crawl and left an unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach. Years ago, Memaw—the grandmother who had raised me for a time—told me that after a person passes away their soul lingers for a few days. Who knew if that was true or not? And what sort of woman told an eight-year-old about ‘lingering souls?’ But all I could think about was Ben’s soul lingering in this very hallway as I crept for the bathroom, the floorboards squeaking under my shoes. The bathroom door was closed, thankfully not locked, and I stumbled inside. Light blinded me before my eyes started to adjust.
“Jesus. Lord. Fuck.”
In an instant, I went sober. The sight before me was beyond horrific. Serious slasher movie shit. Was someone fucking murdered in here? Because all I could see was red, contrasting sharply against white tile.
Then my eyes finished adjusting, and I realized that Ellie's younger sister Georgina had slit her wrists. Well, not just her wrists. It looked like she'd slit her whole fucking arm. Both of them. There was way too much blood to know for sure. Her body was slumped, propped up against the side of the tub, while her arms were turned up as if she were meditating with her eyes peacefully shut.
Dropping straight to my knees, I yelled her name and for help. My voice sounded shrill, barely recognizable as my own. Terrified she might already be dead, I brushed her long brown hair away from her neck and felt for a pulse.
She had one, a faint one, but it was there.
Common sense told me I needed to slow the blood flow. And by the way she'd dug into her arms with the big-ass kitchen knife on the tile floor beside her, I knew that wasn’t going to be easy. I moved her body flat on the floor and pulled her legs up to rest on my lap. Blood stained everything. Yanking my shirt over my head, I ripped at the fabric and tied the pieces around her arms. It wasn't enough. I used my hands to put pressure on the cuts.
By this time, Mr. and Mrs. Turner were awake and in the bathroom, yelling frantic things at me while they called 911. But I pushed out the noise and the ringing in my ears, focusing all my attention on her.
Amongst the chaos, her blue eyes flickered open for a single, brief moment and hope shook through my body. Her eyes were glazed-over and distant but managed to connect with mine.
“Noah, I'm cold,” she whispered, before her lids fluttered closed once more.
“You will not die on me,” I told her with absolute certainty. “I won’t let you.” I leaned over to press my chest against her body, hoping that might keep her warmer. Then I did the one thing I never thought I'd do again—I prayed to God. He'd let me down a few too many times, and we weren't on speaking terms these days, but I'd never needed anything more. I begged. I pleaded. And then the next thing I knew, the paramedics were there, taking her away from me. I asked them frantic questions, needing to know if she would live, but my questions went unanswered, time and everyone moving faster than my foggy brain could keep up with.
Georgie was gone.
Ellie stood in the bathroom with me now. I hadn’t moved from my spot on the ground, and Ellie yanked on my arm, trying unsuccessfully to pull me to my feet.
“Go with them to the hospital,” I insisted. “I'm fine.”
“Noah, you're covered in blood. Get up.”
“Well, I can't go to the hospital. Mom went in the ambulance, and Dad already left. I'm too drunk to drive, and someone had to stay here with Rose. I think you're in shock. You need to get up.”
Glancing up, I took in the sight of my best friend. She had black stuff streaked down her cheeks and some of Georgie’s blood smeared in her spikey brown hair. Ellie was tough. She never cried. It hurt my already churning stomach to see her so upset—especially seeing it for the second time today. “I'm not in shock,” I assured her. “I'm fine. Go take care of Rose. Don't let her near this bathroom. She's too little to see something this fucked up. Let me know when you know anything new about Georgie. In the meantime, I'm going to try to clean some of this.”
“You don't have to do that.” She wiped her nose on her sleeve, shaking noticeably.
“Yes, I do. You know how I get.”
She nodded, reluctant but agreeing. “Okay. I'll go get you some towels and bleach. Thanks, Noah.” She went for the door.
“For cleaning? I have nothing better to do right now.”
“No, for saving her life. The paramedic said if you'd found her even a few minutes later or hadn't done all you did…she'd be—” She sighed a big huff of air and continued, “She’d be dead now, too. You saved her.”
I’d never saved anyone or anything in my whole life. I didn’t like the idea of it. I was nobody’s hero. But the alternative option would have been to let Georgie die, so I guess just this once an exception had to be made.
Ellie left and returned a few minutes later with towels, bleach, and cleaning supplies. I might have known I needed to get Georgie flat on the floor and elevate her legs when that had mattered, but I didn't have the first clue on how to clean up a giant bloody mess. Once I started, I realized the smell of blood and bleach didn't mix well, and all I'd done was spread the red further over the tile floor. My cleaning wasn't helping jack. Dammit. I sighed, taking a step backward, trying to come up with a better plan to tackle the mess. That was when I noticed a pink cellphone lying rather ominously on the bathroom sink. Georgie's cellphone.
Being nosy as hell and not caring, I grabbed it and slid the unlock button to turn on the screen. The notes app on the phone opened. She'd left a goodbye letter. It read:
I'm sorry. I know my timing is horrible, but I couldn't let Ben go into the dark alone. He's my other half. Please understand. I love you all, but I love him, too. And now I'm with him. Love, tons and tons of love, Georgina
It was the sweetest and the stupidest fucking note I'd ever read. She'd lost her brother. Watching his casket being lowered into the ground was hard for all of us to watch today. I understood she was in pain. I understood she wanted to ease that pain. She wanted to follow him into the dark… I even understood that. What I didn't understand was why it was cutting me up inside. Because it was. Finding her on that floor, holding her cold body, watching as the paramedics took her away, and staring at the evidence of it all still staining the bathroom floor—it was ripping me to fucking shreds. And it had been years since I’d let something affect me like this.
“Noah—” Ellie came rushing back into the bathroom. “Dad just called.”
“Tell me she'll live,” I demanded.
“She’s gonna live.”
I let out a breath of air I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in.
FOUR MONTHS LATER
There comes a time in every person’s life when they hit rock bottom. And it is how you handle yourself when that time comes that defines you. It was safe to say, when my rock bottom came screaming in my face, I’d failed. Miserably. I had tried to commit suicide—tried being the operative word in that statement. If it hadn’t been for my sister’s friend, Noah Clark, then I’d be dead. The most depressing part of all, I still wasn’t one hundred percent sure if Noah saving me was a good thing.
But, nevertheless, he had saved me. Maybe I was still trying to figure out how to be okay. Maybe I was still missing my brother every single moment of the day. And maybe I was still nothing close to the person I wanted to be. But I had a smidgeon of hope now, where before I’d thought I had none, and I had Noah to thank for that.
I sighed, staring out the window at the rows and rows of beach houses ticking by. The Cove—the recovery facility I’d been sent to and had spent the last four months ‘recovering’ at—was a three hour drive from our seaside home in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Four months and three hours had flown by, and we were minutes away from the house. It had been an uncomfortable drive, given that my parents had forgotten how to act normal around me, and I feared being home and facing reality again.
I guess I feared it all because I’d loved The Cove so much. It was a residential treatment center for young women suffering from anything from drug addiction to eating disorders, which focused on building skills for the future. Pure ‘let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya’ bullcrap, but surprisingly I’d fit in rather well there. Before Ben’s death, I’d been so caught up in my own little world of friends, parties, and my boyfriend, that I hadn’t even noticed how wildly unhappy I was until it was too late. Take me out of that world and I’d done shockingly well. But put me back into my old world—what if everything just came crashing down on me all over again? What if I wasn’t strong enough to exist in my old world?
“Ellie’s making dinner,” Mom announced. She’d run out of random things to chat about two hours ago.
“Oh,” I answered.
Mom continued on, talking to me in a sweet, soft, careful voice. “I wanted to have a nice family dinner tonight. I wanted it waiting for you when we arrived home. Ellie volunteered.”
Ellie’s cooking would probably be disastrous, but that actually sounded better than whatever overly-healthy, latest-diet-trend dinner my mom might have fixed instead.
“I’m sure it will be great,” I replied politely, but my heart was now pounding just a little harder than it should have been. Because if Ellie was at home, then Noah Clark would surely be there with her.
Noah was my sister’s best friend. They went to high school together, graduated together, decided to forego college together to start their own business, and currently lived together. The two were pretty damn inseparable. And if my sister wasn’t a lesbian, I’d have assumed the next step in their undying friendship would be marriage and babies. But my older sister liked girls, and Noah was just her really good friend. Her really good-looking good friend. Her really good-looking good friend who saved my life and now kept creeping into my thoughts at random moments like now…
A second later, Dad pulled into the driveway of our house. A.k.a. ‘The Shore Thing.’ It was standard around here to name your house and to post that name like a name-tag over the front door on a wooden placard. The neighbor’s house to the right was called ‘Beachy Keen.’ And to the left sat a vacation rental by the name of ‘Sol Mate.’ Kind of cheesy, but the tourists seemed to like the different names. Or at least that was what Dad was always saying. He was a realtor so I guess he would know.
Dad grabbed my luggage, Mom grabbed her purse, and I fidgeted with the hem of my long-sleeved shirt. It was early June, already hot as balls in North Carolina, but I had on jeans and a long-sleeved shirt because razors at The Cove had been banned, and I desperately needed to shave…everywhere. Not to mention, I liked long sleeves since they were good at hiding my scars.
I pushed open the front door, entering the house through the lower level. Basements were impossible this close to the ocean, but in all practicality, the lower level was our basement. It had Ellie’s old room, a guest room, a bathroom, and a game room. I took the stairs two at a time, leaving my parents behind—no sense in delaying the awkward-ass meet-and-greet coming my way—and headed for the main level. That was where the kitchen, living room, and all my other family members would be. It was also where Noah would be. Might as well get that nerve-racking, thanks-for-saving-my-life-even-though-I-didn’t-want-to-be-saved, did-I-mention-I-can’t-stop-thinking-about-you-lately weird moment over with as well.
But the only person I found was my little sister, Rose. She was sitting on the couch, watching some pointless reality TV show. She gave me a menacing glare from across the room when I entered, and then resumed watching whatever she was watching. Okay? What was her problem? She was nine for crying out loud but acting like a moody teenager.
She flipped her long, chocolate-colored hair over one shoulder. “Hi, yourself.”
“Aren’t you going to give me a hug? I haven’t seen you for almost four months.”
BEEEEEP! BEEEEEP! BEEEEEEEEEP!
Just then the smoke alarm went off in the kitchen. Oh God, Mom never should have left the cooking up to Ellie. The smell of burning hit my nose just as I heard my older sister shout, “Shit! Noah, get the fire extinguisher!”
Jeez! I plopped down on the couch by Rose rather than dealing with that. Mom, surely hearing the commotion from all the way downstairs with her mom-hearing, hurried through the living room a second later and dropped her purse on the floor as she rushed to help out in the kitchen. The next thing I knew, Ellie—with Noah following close behind her—came laughing out into the living room like they’d both just been banished by Mom. She and Noah had little specks of white stuff all over them.
“That was hella awesome!” Ellie was saying. “Who knew macaroni and cheese could catch on fire like that?” She grabbed Noah’s shirt dramatically. “Noah Clark, you’re my hero.”
From the couch, I watched them—neither had noticed me yet. Once, a few years back, I heard one of Ellie’s girlfriends refer to her as, “butch in the streets, femme in the sheets.” I was not sure what that meant, if it had been a compliment or not, but I took it as…Ellie sure looked the part of a masculine lesbian—all macho and swagger, short hair and tattoos—but deep down she was a sweetheart. Kind, caring, and loving. As for Noah…well, no point in denying it, the guy was all man.
His golden, sun-bleached hair was just long enough to tie back haphazardly into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, little pieces always falling loose. He had brown eyes and a strong jawline, rivaling someone like Brad Pitt. Sometimes he shaved, but not today. His shoulders were wide enough to fill a door and I had a fleeting image—one scarred on my cortex—of the way his muscular chest looked shirtless. Holy hell! The guy was a delicious cross between a California surfer, a mountain man, and Thor, and I tried to keep my eyes glued on the TV. Really, I did. But still, my cheeks burned, and my wild, ridiculous thoughts would not stop. I’d been hoping that seeing him in person after four months would squash these unwanted feelings. Maybe being locked away at an all-girls facility caused me to over-glorify and hype him up to more than he was. But nope. Noah Clark was just as striking in person as he was in all my late-night fantasies.
Crap on a crap-stick. I dug my fingernails into my jeans. He and Ellie still hadn’t noticed me sitting there, and I didn’t want to be blushing or hyperventilating when they did.
I’d always found Noah to be attractive, even during his high-school emo/Goth phase when his hair was dyed black and he wore combat boots in the summer. But I’d never seriously considered him, because truthfully, I’d been a little scared (and a lot intimidated) of the guy. He was almost six years older than me and not much of a talker. He had the whole brooding ‘I-hate-the-world’ thing down perfectly. But that same tormented oddball had also done everything in his power to save my life when it had mattered most. So yeah…now, and over the past few months, I suddenly found myself seriously considering him. I wanted to know who Noah Clark really was. What did my sister know that the rest of the world didn’t?
To make my insane crush worse, I still technically, kinda-sorta had a boyfriend. Logan Tyler. We hadn’t spoken in almost four months, but we hadn’t officially broken up yet either. That would be corrected soon, but still. Either way, I shouldn’t have been thinking about Noah in any capacity, especially when he was standing six feet away from me.
“Hello. Earth to Georgie!” Ellie called out, pulling me out of my thoughts and back into the present. She was the last person on the planet to still call me Georgie and that used to bother me, but as she bear-tackled me against the couch—the first person to hug me this tight in months—I found myself wondering why I used to always fight her so much on something as stupid as a name. She tickled me until I was crying ‘uncle,’ then she let up. “It’s good to have you home, kiddo. Did Mom make you want to slit your wrists all over again on the drive home?”
The smallest exhale of air came from Noah, a sound I might have missed if Ellie hadn’t reacted immediately to it.
“What?” she asked him, as if he’d managed to shock her. She turned around on the couch to face where he stood. “Is it too soon for jokes, Mr. Sensitive? Lighten up, Georgie’s fine.”
He didn’t answer her, but his eyes found mine. He gave me a simple look, one that likely meant nothing, but my heart slammed inside my chest nonetheless. And for a fraction of a second, it was as if the two of us shared something the rest of the world didn’t have privilege to. I had no idea what the hell that something was, and it didn’t matter anyway, because my small moment with Noah evaporated as fast as it began. His face turned expressionless as his gaze shifted to Rose’s TV program.
“Okay,” Mom shouted from the kitchen. “Dinner’s ready. Everybody go sit so we can eat.”
Ellie gave my knee a little squeeze, staying behind with me on the couch for a moment as everyone else went to sit around the dining room table. “I shouldn’t be worried about you, right? Or was it too soon for jokes?” she whispered, being serious for once in her life.
I shrugged. “I don’t know, but I like how you’ve treated me normally since everything happened.”
She nodded, looking sullen for exactly one second before a wicked grin filled her face. “This is going to be the best freaking summer of your life,” she whispered, excitement in her voice. “You’re eighteen now. You’re finally done with stupid high school. You can do whatever the hell you want—except drink, but that’s just a technicality—and I’m going to make it my personal mission this summer to ensure that every single day you wake up regretting taking that knife to your pretty skin. Just stick with me and Noah, and you’ll learn that the world can bend if you need it to. Rule Number One: There are no rules. Nothing is black and white.”
I gulped. I had no idea what she was talking about, and honestly, it kind of scared the crap out of me. But for the way she was smiling, I wanted to trust whatever it was she was saying. And if sticking with her meant sticking with Noah, how was I supposed to turn down that small opportunity?
“Sure,” I answered, “I could do that.”
“Good. Now come and try my macaroni and cheese. I microwaved the pasta before I cooked it. It’s supposed to make it better. Except the recipe never called for it to catch on fire…so I’m hoping that just added more flavor.”
I couldn’t help but smile. One of the things I learned at The Cove was to gravitate toward the ‘real’ people in my life—the people who would love and support me no matter what. To lean on them, trust in them, confide in them, and let them become an ‘ally’ to me. Before Ben’s death, I hadn’t given my family any of my love. I’d saved it all up for my friends at school, Logan, and the things I used to think mattered. Ellie and I had never been very close, at least not during my teenage years, because I’d never given her much of a chance. She was a lesbian, with a crazy amount of tattoos, and had a best friend who looked like he belonged in a motorcycle gang—hanging out with her would have been social suicide. No pun intended. But I vowed right then, that I would never again judge my sister based on those things. And I wouldn’t stand by and listen when others judged her based on those things anymore either.
I sat down at the table, purposely avoiding glancing in Noah’s direction because he only made breathing difficult, and loaded a heaping pile of Ellie’s macaroni onto my plate. It had some white flakes in it that probably came from the fire extinguisher, but I spooned a giant bite into my mouth anyway.
“This is amazing,” I said, because surprisingly it was. “Best welcome home meal ever, Ellie.”
She laughed and took my compliment.
* * *
The rest of the meal passed okay…and by okay I mean boring and awkward. Ellie and Mom had a tendency to argue and neither spoke, probably both trying to make an effort for me. I actually wouldn’t have minded if they’d argued, because that would have felt more normal than the silence. Then there was Rose. She sat through the entire dinner with earbuds in. It shocked the hell out of me that neither of my parents made her take them out. Noah was Noah—quiet like usual. And Dad…well, he tried really hard to make conversation. He spoke first about the warm weather and then about some of the vacation rentals he managed. But no one took the bait and joined his conversation, and soon he gave up. The silence was deafening.
The problem for me was…the last time we’d had a big family dinner like this was when Ben had been alive. I’d had four months to come to grips with my brother’s death, and it still hurt like hell. But I never anticipated how excruciating it would be to do normal things like this without him. Well, even if he were still alive, the odds were that he wouldn’t have been having dinner with us and at this table anyway, but I hated knowing he wasn’t having dinner anywhere in the world right now. The enthusiasm I’d felt with Ellie minutes ago faded as fast as she’d created it. I quickly finished the rest of my meal. Even Noah’s good looks weren’t enough to distract away my heavy heart.
“This meal was great,” I told everyone and the silent room. “I think I’m going to go unpack. If that’s okay?” They all stared at me as I stood up. Even Noah.
“Okay,” Mom answered. “A new Netflix movie came in the mail yesterday. I figured we could all watch it together in a little while. What do you think?”
“Sure,” I said, appeasing her as fast as possible so I could leave the room. I took my plate to the sink, rinsing it and putting it in the dishwasher, and then hurried upstairs to my room. I needed to unpack.
And to cry.
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