It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2) (2 page)

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
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Chapter Three
Atlas

“ ‘We finally reached the
shore
’?” Theo says. “You actually
said
that to her? Out loud?”

I shift uncomfortably on the couch. “We bonded over
Finding Nemo
when we were younger.”

“You quoted a
cartoon
.” Theo’s head roll is dramatic. “And it didn’t work. It’s been over eight hours since you ran into her, and she still hasn’t texted you.”

“Maybe she got busy.”

“Or maybe you came on too strong,” Theo says, leaning forward. He clasps his hands between his knees and refocuses. “Okay, so what happened after you said all the cheesy lines?”

He’s brutal. “Nothing. We both had to get to work. I asked if she still had my number, and she said she had it memorized, and then we said good—”

“Hold up,” Theo interrupts. “She has your number
memorized
?”

“Apparently so.”

“Okay.” He looks hopeful. “This means something. No one memorizes numbers anymore.”

I was thinking the same thing, but I also wondered if she memorized my number for other reasons. Back when I wrote
it down and put it in her phone case, it was for an emergency. Maybe part of her feared the day she’d need it, so she memorized it for reasons that had nothing to do with me.

“So, what do I do? Text her? Call her? Wait until she reaches out to me?”

“It’s been eight hours, Atlas. Calm down.”

His advice is giving me whiplash. “Two minutes ago, you acted like eight hours without a text was too long. Now you’re telling me to calm down?”

Theo shrugs and then kicks my desk to make his chair spin. “I’m twelve. I don’t even have a phone yet, and you want my opinion on texting etiquette?”

It surprises me that he doesn’t have a phone yet. Brad doesn’t seem like he would be a strict father. “Why don’t you have a phone?”

“Dad says I can have one when I turn thirteen. Two more months,” he says wistfully.

Theo has been coming to the restaurant a couple of days a week after school since Brad’s promotion six months ago. Theo told me he wanted to be a therapist when he grows up, so I let him practice on me. At first, the talks we would have were intended for his benefit. But lately, I feel like I’m the one benefiting.

Brad peeks his head into my office in search of his son. “Let’s go. Atlas has work to do.” He motions for Theo to stand up, but Theo just keeps spinning in my desk chair.

“Atlas is the one who called me in here. He needed advice.”

“I’ll never understand whatever this is,” Brad says, pointing between me and Theo. “What advice do you get from my son? How to avoid your chores and win at
Minecraft
?”

Theo stands up and stretches his arms over his head. “Girls, actually. And winning isn’t the point of
Minecraft
, Dad. It’s more of a sandbox game.” Theo looks over his shoulder at me as he’s leaving my office. “Just text her.” He says that like it’s the obvious solution. Maybe it is.

Brad yanks him away from the door.

I settle back into my desk chair and stare at my blank phone screen.
Maybe she memorized the wrong number.

I open her contact and hesitate. Theo could be right. I could have come on too strong this morning. We didn’t say much when we ran into each other, but what we did say had meaning and intent. Maybe that scared her.

Or… maybe I’m right and she memorized the wrong number.

My fingers hover over my phone’s keyboard. I want to text her, but I don’t want to pressure her. However, she and I both know our lives would have turned out so different if I hadn’t made so many missteps with her in the past.

I spent years making excuses for why my life wasn’t good enough for her to be a part of it, but Lily always fit. She was a perfect fit. I refuse to let her walk away this time without a little more effort on my part. I’ll start with making sure she has my correct number.

It was good seeing you today, Lily.

I wait to see if she’s going to text me back. When I see the three dots pop up, I hold my breath in anticipation.

You too.

I stare at her response for way too long, hoping it’ll be accompanied by another text. But it isn’t. That’s all I’m getting.

It’s only two words, but I can read between the lines.

I sigh in defeat and drop my phone onto my desk.

Chapter Four
Lily

Mine and Ryle’s situation has been an unconventional one since Emerson was born. I don’t think many couples file divorce papers at the same time they sign their newborn’s birth certificate.

As much as I was disappointed in Ryle for being the thing that forced me to have to make the decision to end our marriage, I didn’t want to prevent him from bonding with our daughter. I cooperate with him as much as I can since his schedule is so hectic. I sometimes even take her to his work to visit him on his lunch break.

He’s also had a key to my place since before Emerson was born. I only gave it to him because I lived alone and was afraid I’d go into labor and he’d need access to the apartment. But he never gave the key back after her birth, even though I’ve been meaning to ask him for it. He sometimes uses it on the rare occasions he has a late surgery and has extra time to spend with Emmy in the mornings after I head to work. That’s why I haven’t asked for it back. But lately, he’s been using the key to bring Emmy home.

He texted me just before I closed the shop earlier and told me Emmy was tired, so he was taking her to my place to put her to bed. The frequency he’s been using the key lately
is making me wonder if Emmy is the only one he’s trying to spend more time with.

My front door is unlocked when I finally make it to my apartment. Ryle is in the kitchen. He glances up at me when he hears the front door shut.

“I grabbed dinner,” he says, holding up a bag from my favorite Thai place. “You haven’t eaten, have you?”

I don’t like this. He’s been making himself more and more comfortable here. But I’m emotionally drained from the day already, so I shake my head and decide to confront the issue at a different time. “I haven’t. Thank you.” I set my purse on the table and pass the kitchen, heading for Emmy’s room.

“I just laid her down,” he warns.

I pause right outside her door and press my ear to it. It’s quiet, so I back away from the door and head into the kitchen without waking her.

I feel awful about my short response to Atlas earlier, but this interaction with Ryle is confirming all my concerns. How am I supposed to start something with someone new when my ex still brings me dinner and has a key to my apartment?

I need to set firm boundaries with Ryle before I can even begin to entertain the idea of Atlas.

Ryle chooses a bottle of red wine from my tabletop wine rack. “Mind if I open this?”

I shrug as I spoon pad thai onto my plate. “Go ahead, but I don’t want any.”

Ryle puts the bottle back and opts for a glass of tea. I grab a water out of the fridge, and we both take a seat at the table.

“How was she today?” I ask him.

“A little cranky, but I had a lot of errands to run. I think she just got tired of going in and out of the car seat. She was better when we went over to Allysa’s.”

“When’s your next day off?” I ask him.

“Not sure. I’ll let you know.” He reaches forward and uses his thumb to wipe something off my cheek. I flinch a little, but he doesn’t notice. Or maybe he pretends not to. I’m not sure if he realizes the reaction I have anytime his hand comes near me is a negative one. Knowing Ryle, he probably thinks I flinched because I felt a spark.

After Emmy was born, there were moments here and there when I
would
feel a spark between us. He’d do or say something sweet, or he’d be holding Emmy while he sang to her, and I would feel that familiar desire for him bubbling up inside of me. But I somehow found it within me to pull myself out of the moment every time. It only takes one bad memory to immediately dull any fleeting feelings I have in his presence.

It’s been a long, bumpy road, but those feelings are finally nonexistent.

I attribute that to the list I wrote of all the reasons why I chose to divorce him. Sometimes, after he leaves, I go to my bedroom and read it to reiterate that this arrangement is the best one for all of us.

Well. Maybe not this
exact
arrangement. I’d still like my key returned to me.

I’m about to take another bite of noodles when I hear a muffled ping come from my purse across the table. I drop my fork and quickly reach for my phone before Ryle does.
Not that he would read my texts, but the last thing I want right now is for him to even try to be polite by handing me my phone. He might see that the text is from Atlas, and I’m not prepared for the storm that would bring.

The text isn’t from Atlas, though. It’s from my mother. She’s sending pics of Emmy she took earlier this week. I set the phone down and pick up my fork, but Ryle is staring at me.

“It was my mother,” I say. I don’t know why I even say that. I don’t owe him an explanation, but I don’t like the way he’s staring at me.

“Who were you
hoping
it would be? You practically lunged across the table for your phone.”

“No one.” I take a drink. He’s still staring. I have no idea how well Ryle can read me, but it looks like he knows I’m lying.

He spins his fork in his noodles and looks down at his plate with a hardened jaw. “Are you seeing someone?” There’s an edge to his voice now.

“Not that it’s any of your business, but no.”

“Not saying it is my business. Just having a casual conversation.”

I don’t respond to that because it’s a lie. Any recently divorced husband asking his ex-wife if she’s seeing someone is making anything but casual conversation.

“I do think we need to have a more serious conversation at some point about dating,” he says. “Before either of us brings other people around Emerson. Maybe lay some ground rules.”

I nod. “I think we need to lay ground rules for a lot more than just that.”

His eyes narrow. “Like what?”

“Your access to my apartment.” I swallow. “I’d like my key back.”

Ryle stares stoically before he responds. Then he wipes his mouth and says, “I can’t put my daughter to bed?”

“That’s not what I’m saying at all.”

“You know my schedule is crazy, Lily. I hardly get to see her as it is.”

“I’m not saying I want you to see her any less. I just want my key back. I value my privacy.”

Ryle’s expression is tight. He’s upset with me. I knew he would be, but he’s making this into more than it is. It has nothing to do with how much I want him to see Emmy. I just don’t want him having easy access to my apartment. I moved out and divorced him for a reason.

It’s not going to be a huge change, but it’s one that needs to happen, or we’ll be stuck in this unhealthy routine forever.

“I’ll just start keeping her overnight, then.” He says it with such conviction while eyeing me for a reaction. I know he can feel the discomfort I’m suddenly drowning in.

I keep my voice calm. “I don’t think I’m ready for that.”

Ryle drops his fork on his plate with a thud. “Maybe we need to modify the custody arrangement.”

Those words infuriate me, but I somehow prevent my rage from boiling over. I stand and pick up my plate. “Really, Ryle? I ask for the key to
my
apartment back and you threaten me with court?”

We agreed to this arrangement, but he’s acting like that was for
my
benefit rather than his. He knows I could have taken him to court for sole custody after everything he put
me through. Hell, I never even had him arrested. He should be grateful I’ve been as generous as I have.

When I get to the kitchen, I set down my plate and grip the edges of the counter, allowing my head to drop between my shoulders.
Calm down, Lily. He’s just reacting.

I hear Ryle sigh regretfully, and then he follows me into the kitchen. He leans against the counter while I rinse my plate. “Can you at least give me a timeline?” His voice is lower when he speaks. “When will I get overnights with her?”

I press my hip against the counter and face him. “When she can talk.”

“Why then?”

I hate that he even needs me to say this out loud. “So she can tell me if something happens, Ryle.”

When the full meaning of what I’ve just said sinks in, he chews on his bottom lip with a small nod. I can see the frustration in the veins that rise in his neck. He pulls his keys out of his pocket and removes my apartment key. He tosses it on the counter and walks away.

When he grabs his jacket and disappears out the front door, I feel that familiar twinge of guilt creeping into my chest. The guilt is always followed by doubts like,
Am I being too hard on him?
and
What if he really has changed?

I know the answers to these questions, but sometimes it feels good to read the reminders. I go to my room and pull the list out of my jewelry box.

  1. 1) He slapped you because you laughed.
  2. 2) He pushed you down a flight of stairs.
  3. 3) He bit you.
  4. 4) He tried to force himself on you.
  5. 5) You had to get stitches because of him.
  6. 6) Your husband physically hurt you more than once. It would have happened again and again.
  7. 7) You did this for your daughter.

I run my finger over the tattoo on my shoulder, feeling the small scars he left there with his teeth. If Ryle did these things to me at the highest points of our relationship, what would he be capable of at the lowest?

I fold the list and put it back in my jewelry box for the next time I might need a reminder.

Chapter Five
Atlas

“It was definitely targeted,” Brad says, staring at the graffiti.

Whoever vandalized Bib’s two nights ago decided to hit up my newest restaurant last night. Corrigan’s has two damaged windows, and there’s another message spray painted across the back door.

Fuck u Atlass.

They added an
s
and underlined
ass
in my name. I catch myself wanting to laugh at the cleverness, but my mood isn’t making space for humor this morning.

Yesterday, the vandalism barely fazed me. I don’t know if it was because I had just run into Lily and was still riding that high, but this morning I woke up stuck on her apparent avoidance of me. Because of that, the damage to my newest restaurant feels like it’s cutting a little deeper.

“I’ll check the security footage.” I’m hoping it reveals something useful. I still don’t know if I want to go to the police. Maybe if it’s someone I know, I can at least confront them before I’m forced to resort to that.

Brad follows me into my office. I power on the computer and open the security app. I think Brad can feel my frustration, because he doesn’t speak while I search the footage for several minutes.

“There,” Brad says, pointing to the lower left-hand corner of the screen. I slow down the footage until we see a figure.

When I hit play, we both stare in confusion. Someone is curled up on the back steps, unmoving. We watch the screen for about half a minute, until I hit rewind again. According to the time stamp on the footage, the person remains on the steps for over two hours. Without a blanket, in a Boston October.

“They
slept
here?” Brad says. “They weren’t too worried about getting caught, were they?”

I rewind the footage even more until it shows the person walking into the frame for the first time, a little after one in the morning. Because it’s dark, it’s hard to make out facial features, but they seem young. More like a teenager than an adult.

They snoop around for a few minutes—dig through the dumpster. Check the lock on the back door. Pull out the spray paint and leave their clever message.

Then they use the can of spray paint to attempt to break the windows, but Corrigan’s windows are triple-paned, so the person eventually gets bored, or grows tired of trying to make a big enough hole to fit through like they did at Bib’s. That’s when they proceed to lie down on the back steps, where they fall asleep.

Just before the sun rises, they wake up, look around, and then casually walk away like the entire night never happened.

“Do you recognize him?” Brad asks.

“No. You?”

“Nope.”

I pause the footage on what may be the clearest visual we can get of the person, but it’s grainy. They’re wearing jeans and a black hoodie with the hood pulled tight so that their hair isn’t visible.

There’s no way we would be able to recognize whoever this is if we saw them in person. It isn’t a clear enough picture, and they never looked straight at the camera. The police wouldn’t even find this footage useful.

I send the file to my email anyway. Right when I hit send, a phone pings. I glance at mine, but it’s Brad who received a text.

“Darin says Bib’s is fine.” He pockets his phone and heads toward my office door. “I’ll start cleaning up.”

I wait for the file to finish sending to my email, then I start the footage over again, feeling more pity than irritation. It just reminds me of the cold nights I spent in that abandoned house before Lily offered me the shelter of her bedroom. I can practically feel the chill in my bones just thinking about it.

I have no idea who this could be. It’s unnerving that they wrote my name on the door, and even more unnerving that they felt comfortable enough to hang out and take a two-hour nap. It’s like they’re daring me to confront them.

My phone begins to vibrate on my desk. I reach for it, but it’s a number I don’t recognize. I normally don’t answer those, but Lily is still in the back of my mind. She could be calling me from a work phone.

God, I sound pathetic.

I raise the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

There’s a sigh on the other end. A female. She sounds relieved that I answered. “Atlas?”

I sigh, too, but not from relief. I sigh because it isn’t Lily’s voice. I’m not sure whose it is, but anyone other than Lily is disappointing, apparently.

I lean back in my office chair. “Can I help you?”

“It’s me.”

I have no idea who “me” is. I think back to any exes that could be calling me, but none of them sound like this person. And none of them would assume I would know who they were if they simply said,
It’s me
.

“Who’s speaking?”


Me
,” she says again, emphasizing it like it’ll make a difference. “Sutton. Your
mother
.”

I immediately pull the phone away from my ear and look at the number again. This has to be some kind of prank. How would my mother get my phone number? Why would she
want
it? It’s been years since she made it clear she never wanted to see me again.

I say nothing.
I have nothing to say.
I stretch my spine and lean forward, waiting for her to spit out the reason she finally put forth the effort to contact me.

“I… um.” She pauses. I can hear a television on in the background. It sounds like
The Price Is Right
. I can almost picture her sitting on the couch, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other at ten in the morning. She mostly worked nights when I was growing up, so she’d eat dinner and then stay up to watch
The Price Is Right
before going to sleep.

It was my least-favorite time of day.

“What do you want?” My voice is clipped.

She makes a noise in the back of her throat, and even though it’s been years, I can tell she’s annoyed. I can tell in that one release of breath that she didn’t
want
to call me. She’s doing it because she
has
to. She’s not reaching out to apologize; she’s reaching out because she’s desperate.

“Are you dying?” I ask. It’s the only thing that would prevent me from ending this call.

“Am I
dying
?” She repeats my question with laughter as if I’m absurd and unreasonable and an
ass… whole
. “No, I’m not
dying
. I’m perfectly fine.”

“Do you need money?”

“Who doesn’t?”

Every ounce of anxiety she used to fill me with returns in just these few seconds on the phone with her. I immediately end the call. I have nothing to say to her. I block her number, regretful that I gave her as long as I did to speak. I should have ended the call as soon as she told me who she was.

I lean forward over my desk and cradle my head in my hands. My stomach is churning from the unexpectedness of the last couple of minutes.

I’m surprised by my reaction, honestly. I thought this might happen one day, but I imagined myself not caring. I assumed I’d feel as indifferent toward her returning to my life as I did when she forced me to leave hers. But back then, I was indifferent to a lot of things.

Now I actually
like
my life. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I have absolutely no desire to allow anyone from my past to come in and threaten that.

I run my hands over my face, forcing down the last few
minutes, then I push back from my desk. I walk outside to help Brad with the repairs and do my best to move beyond this moment. It’s hard, though. It’s like my past is crashing into me from all directions, and I have absolutely no one to discuss this with.

After a few minutes of both of us working in silence, I say to Brad, “You need to get Theo a phone; he’s almost thirteen.”

Brad laughs. “You need to get a therapist who’s closer to your age.”

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
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