It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2) (7 page)

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

Wow.

I close the journal and look over at Lily. She wrote our first kiss with so much detail, it makes me feel inferior to my teenage self.

Did it actually happen that way?

I remember that night, but I was a hell of a lot more
nervous than Lily described me to be. It’s funny how, when you’re a teenager, you think you’re the only inexperienced, nervous human on the planet. You think almost every other teenager has life figured out way better than you do, but it isn’t that way at all. We were both scared. And infatuated. And in love.

I had fallen in love with her long before our first kiss, though. I loved her more than I had ever loved anyone before that moment. I think I loved her more than I’ve ever loved anyone
after
that moment.

I think I still might.

There’s so much Lily doesn’t know about that part of my life. So much I want to tell her now that I’ve read her version of some of our time together. It’s obvious she has no clue how instrumental she was in my life back then. At a time when everyone was turning their backs to me, Lily was the only one who stepped up.

She’s still sound asleep, so I pull out my phone and open a blank note. I start typing, detailing what my life was like before she entered it. I don’t mean to write as much as I do, but I guess I have a lot I want to say to her.

It’s another twenty minutes before I finally finish typing everything, and another five minutes before Lily finally begins to rouse.

I set my phone in the cupholder, unsure if I’m going to allow her to read what I just wrote. I might wait a few days. A few weeks. She wants to take things slow, and I’m not sure what I said toward the end of that letter matches her idea of “slow.”

Her hand goes up, and she scratches her head. She’s
facing the window, so I don’t see her face when her eyes open, but I can tell when she’s awake because she sits straight up. She stares out her window for a beat, then swings her head in my direction. A few strands of hair are stuck to her cheek.

I’m leaning against my door, watching her casually, as if this is completely normal first-date behavior.

“Atlas.” She says my name like it’s an apology and a question at the same time.

“It’s okay. You were tired.”

She grabs her phone and looks at the time. “Oh my
God
.” She leans forward, pressing her elbows into her thighs and her face into her palms. “I can’t believe this.”

“Lily, it’s fine. Really.” I hold up the journal. “You kept me company.”

She eyes the journal and then groans. “This is
mortifying
.”

I toss the journal into the backseat. “I personally found it enlightening.”

Lily hits me playfully on my shoulder. “Stop laughing. I feel too bad for it to be funny.”

“Don’t feel bad, you’re exhausted. And probably hungry. We could grab a burger on the drive back.”

Lily falls dramatically against her seat. “Let the fancy chef take the girl for fast food since she slept through her date. Why not?” She flips the visor down and notices the hair stuck to her cheek. “Wow, I am such a
mom
. Is this our last date? It is. Did I ruin this already? I wouldn’t blame you.”

I put the car in reverse. “Not even close after everything I just read. Not sure anything could top this date.”

“You have very low standards, Atlas.”

I find her self-deprecation adorably attractive. “I have a question about your journal.”

“What?” She’s wiping away a smear of mascara. Everything about her seems so defeated now that she thinks she ruined our date. I can’t stop smiling, though.

“The night of our first kiss… did you put the blankets in the washer on purpose? Was that a trick to get me to sleep in your bed?”

She scrunches up her nose. “You read that far?”

“You were asleep for a long time.”

She contemplates my question, and then nods an admission. “I wanted you to be my first kiss back then, and that wouldn’t have happened if you kept sleeping on the floor.”

She’s probably right about that. And it worked.

It’s
still
working, because reading her description of our first kiss brought back every feeling she pulled out of me that night. She could sleep the entire way back home, and I’d still think this was the best date I’ve ever been on.

Chapter Twelve
Lily

“I can’t believe you let me sleep for that long.” It’s been ten minutes, and my stomach is still rolling from embarrassment. “Did you finish reading the whole journal?”

“I stopped after I read about our first kiss.”

That’s good. That’s not too embarrassing. But if he would have read about the first time we had sex while I was sleeping in the seat next to him, I’m not sure I could have recovered.

“This is so not fair,” I mutter. “You have to do something mortifying so the scales even out, because right now I feel like I’ve completely ruined our night.”

Atlas laughs. “You think me doing something to mortify myself will make you feel better about tonight?”

I nod. “Yes, that’s the law of the universe. Eye for an eye, humiliation for humiliation.”

Atlas taps his thumb on his steering wheel as he massages his jaw with his free hand. Then he nudges his head toward his phone, which is sitting in the cupholder. “Open the Notes app on my phone. Read the first one.”

Oh, wow. I was kidding, but I snatch up his phone so fast. “What’s your password?”

“Nine five nine five.”

I enter the numbers and then glance over his home screen while I have it open. Every app is tucked neatly into a folder. He has zero unread texts and one unread email. “You’re a neat freak. Who has
one
unread email?”

“I don’t like clutter,” he says. “Side effect of the military. How many unread emails do you have?”

“Thousands.” I open the Notes app and click on the most recent one. As soon as I see the two words at the top, I drop the phone, pressing it facedown on my thigh.
“Atlas.”

“Lily.”

I can feel my embarrassment being swallowed up by a warm wave of anticipation falling over me. “You wrote me a
Dear Lily
letter?”

He nods slowly. “You were asleep for quite a while.” When he glances at me, his smile falters, like he’s worried about whatever it is he wrote. He faces forward again, and I can see the roll of his throat.

I lean my head against the passenger window and begin to read silently.

Dear Lily,

You’re going to be mortified when you wake up and realize you fell asleep on our first date. I’m a little too excited for your reaction. But you seemed so tired when I picked you up, it actually makes me happy to see you getting some rest.

This past week has been surreal, hasn’t it? I was beginning to think I may never be a part of your life in any significant way, and then poof, you show up.

I could go on and on about what that run-in meant to me, but I promised my therapist I’d stop saying cheesy shit to you. Don’t worry, I plan on breaking that promise many times, but you asked if we could take things slow, so I’ll give it a few more dates.

Instead, I think I’m going to steal a page from your playbook and talk about our past. It’s only fair. You let me read some of your most intimate thoughts at such a vulnerable point in your life, I figure it’s the least I can do to give you some insight into my life at that time.

My version is a little grittier, though. I’ll try to spare you the worst of the details, but I’m not sure you can fully know what your friendship meant to me without knowing what I went through before you came along.

I told you some of it—about how I ended up in the position I was in, living in that abandoned house. But I had felt homeless a lot longer than that. My whole life, really, even though I had a house and a mother and, occasionally, a stepfather.

I don’t remember what things were like when I was young. I have this fantasy that maybe she was a good mother once upon a time. I do remember a day trip we took to Cape Cod where we tried coconut shrimp for the first time, but if she was a decent mother outside of that one day, that one meal, that part of her never became a core memory for me.

My core memories were stretches of time spent alone, or just trying to stay out of her way. She was quick to anger and quick to respond. For the first ten or so years of my life, she was stronger and faster than me, so I spent the
better part of a decade hiding from her hand, from her cigarettes, from the lash of her tongue.

I know she was stressed. She was a single mother working nights to try and provide for me, but as many excuses as I made for her back then, I’ve seen my fair share of single mothers navigate life just fine without resorting to the things my mother did.

You’ve seen my scars. I won’t go into the details, but as bad as it was, it got even worse when she was on her third marriage. I was twelve when they met.

Little did I know, the age of twelve would be my only peaceful year. She was always gone because she was with him, and when she was home, she was actually in a decent mood because she was falling in love. Funny how love for a partner can make or break how some people treat their own children.

But twelve turned into thirteen turned into Tim moving in with us, and the next four years of my life were hell on earth. When I wasn’t making my mother angry, I was making Tim angry. When I was home, I was being yelled at. When I was at school, the house was being destroyed by their fights, and I’d be expected to clean up after them when I got home.

Life with them was a nightmare, and by the time I was finally strong enough to take up for myself, that’s when Tim decided he didn’t want to live with me anymore.

My mother chose him. I was forced to leave. They didn’t have to ask twice; I was more than ready to go, but that’s because I had somewhere to go.

Until I didn’t. I was gone three months before the
friend I was staying with moved with his family to Colorado.

At that point, I had no one and nowhere else to go, and no money to get there if I did, so I was forced to go back to my mother and ask if I could come back home.

I still remember the day I showed back up to that house. I had barely been gone three months, and the place was already falling apart. The yard hadn’t been mowed since the last time I’d done it before being kicked out. All the window screens were missing, and there was a gaping hole where the doorknob used to be. By the looks of the place, you would think I’d been gone for years.

My mother’s car was in the driveway, but Tim’s wasn’t. It looked like her car had been there for a while. The hood was propped open, and there were tools scattered near it, along with at least thirty beer cans someone had shaped in the form of a pyramid against the garage door.

Even the newspapers had piled up on the cracked concrete walkway. I remember picking them up and setting them on one of the old iron chairs to dry out before I knocked on the door.

It felt weird knocking on the door of a house I had lived in for years, but on the off chance Tim was home, I wasn’t about to open the door without permission. I had a house key still, but Tim had made it very clear that he’d turn me in for trespassing if I ever tried to use it.

I couldn’t have used it even if I wanted to. There was no doorknob.

I could hear someone making their way across the living room. The curtain on the small window at the top half
of the front door moved, and I saw my mother peek outside. She stared for a few seconds, unmoving.

She eventually opened the door a few inches. Far enough that I could see that, at two o’clock in the afternoon, she was still in her pajamas, which were an oversized Weezer T-shirt one of her exes had left behind. I hated that shirt because I liked that band. Every time she wore it, she ruined them a little more for me.

She asked what I was doing there, and I didn’t immediately want to give her my reasons. Instead, I asked her if Tim was home.

She opened the door a bit more and folded her arms so tightly together, it made one of the band members on her shirt look decapitated. She told me Tim was at work and asked what I wanted.

I asked her if I could come inside. She contemplated my question and then looked over my shoulder, her eyes scanning the street. I don’t know what she was checking for. Maybe she was afraid a neighbor would witness her allowing her own son to visit.

She left the door open for me while she went to her bedroom to change. The house was eerily dark, I remember. All the curtains were drawn, creating a sense of confusion on what time of day it was. It didn’t help that the clock on the stove was blinking, and the time was off by over eight hours. If I still lived there, that’s something else I would have fixed.

If I still lived there, the curtains would have been open. The kitchen counters wouldn’t have been covered with dirty dishes. There wouldn’t have been a missing doorknob, or an unkempt yard, or days’ worth of soggy newspapers pil
ing up. I realized in that moment that I was the one who had been keeping that house together all the years I was growing up.

It gave me hope. Hope that maybe they realized I was an asset rather than an inconvenience, and they would allow me to return home until I finished high school.

I saw a doorknob kit on the kitchen table, so I picked it up and inspected it. The receipt was beneath it. I looked at the date on the receipt, and it was purchased over two weeks prior.

The doorknob was the right fit for the front door. I didn’t know why Tim hadn’t installed it if he’d had it for two weeks, so I found the tools in a kitchen drawer and opened the package. It was several minutes before my mother came out of her room, but by the time she did, I already had the new doorknob in place on the front door.

She asked what I was doing, so I twisted the knob and opened the door a little to show her it worked.

I’ll never forget her reaction. She sighed and said, “Why do you do shit like this? It’s like you want him to hate you.” She snatched the screwdriver out of my hand and said, “Maybe you should go before he realizes you were here.”

Part of the reason I could never get along with anyone in that house was because their reactions always seemed misplaced. When I would help out around the house without being asked, Tim would say it was because I was antagonizing him. When I wouldn’t help with something, he’d say it was because I was lazy and ungrateful.

“I’m not trying to upset Tim,” I said. “I fixed your doorknob. I was just trying to help.”

“He was going to do it as soon as he had the time.”

Part of Tim’s problem was that he always had the time. He never kept a job more than six months and spent more time gambling than he did with my mother.

“Did he get a job?” I remember asking her.

“He’s looking.”

“Is that where he is right now?”

I could see in her expression that Tim wasn’t out job hunting. Wherever he was, I was sure it was putting my mother even more in debt than she already was. Her debt was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back and got me kicked out in the first place. When I found a stash of maxed-out, past-due credit card bills in her name, I confronted Tim about them.

He didn’t like being confronted. He preferred the preteen version of me he met to the near adult I grew into. He liked the version of me he could push around without being pushed back. The version of me he could manipulate without me calling him out.

That version of me left between the ages of fifteen and sixteen. Once Tim realized he couldn’t threaten me physically anymore, he tried ruining my life in other ways. One of those ways was leaving me without a place to live.

I eventually swallowed my pride and came right out with it. I told my mother I had nowhere to go.

My mother’s expression wasn’t just void of empathy, it was full of annoyance. “I hope you aren’t asking to move back in after everything you did.”

“Everything I did? You mean when I called him out because his gambling addiction put you in debt?”

That’s when she called me an asshole. Or ass
whole,
rather. She always said that word wrong.

I attempted to plead with her, but she quickly resorted to the person I was used to. She hurled the screwdriver at me. It was so sudden and unexpected because we weren’t even arguing at that point, so I wasn’t able to duck in time. It hit me right above my left eye, in the center of my eyebrow.

I rubbed my fingers across the cut, and they came away smeared with blood.

All I did was ask to move home. I didn’t disrespect her. I didn’t curse at her. I simply showed up and fixed her front door and tried to reason with her, and I ended up with a bloody gash.

I remember staring at my fingers, thinking, “Tim didn’t do this. My mother did this.”

For so long, I had blamed Tim for everything that went wrong in that household, but everything wrong with that household started with her. Tim simply amplified what was already an awful environment.

I remember thinking that I would rather be dead than back with her. Up until that moment, there was a part of me that still held something for her. I don’t know if it was a sliver of respect, but I was somehow able to appreciate that she had kept me alive when I was younger. But isn’t that the most basic thing a parent should do when they decide to bring a child into the world?

I realized at that point I had been giving her too much credit. I always blamed our lack of a bond on her being a single mother, but there were a lot of busy single mothers
out there who somehow still bonded with their children. Mothers who took up for their children when they were being mistreated. Mothers who wouldn’t look the other way when their thirteen-year-old came away from a punishment with a black eye and a busted lip. Mothers who didn’t allow their husbands to force their school-aged child into homelessness. Mothers who didn’t throw screwdrivers at their children’s heads.

Despite realizing what an uncaring human she truly was, I made one last attempt to pull humanity out of her. “Can I at least get some of my stuff before I leave?”

“You don’t have anything,” she said. “We needed the space.”

I couldn’t look at her after that. It was as if she wanted nothing more than to erase me from her life, so I vowed in that moment to help her do just that.

The blood was dripping into my eye when I was walking away from the house.

I can’t tell you what the rest of that day was like. To feel so incredibly unwanted, unloved, alone. I had no one. Nothing. No money, no belongings, no family.

Just a wound.

We’re impressionable when we’re younger, and when you’re told you are nothing for years on end by everyone you should mean something to, you start to believe it. And you slowly start to become nothing.

But then I met you, Lily. And even though I was nothing, when you looked at me, you somehow saw something. Something I couldn’t see. You were the first person in my life to show an interest in who I was as a human. No one
had ever asked me questions about myself the way you did. After those few months I spent getting to know you, I stopped feeling like I was nothing. You made me feel interesting and unique. Your friendship gave me worth.

Thank you for that. Even if this date leads nowhere and we never speak again, I will always be grateful to you for somehow seeing something in me that my own mother was blind to.

You’re my favorite person, Lily. And now you know why.

Atlas

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