It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2) (9 page)

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
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“I’m going home now.” I start to head toward the stairs, but he’s faster than me. He moves past me, and then he’s in between me and the door to the stairwell. I take a nervous step back. I slip my hand in my pocket in search of my phone in case I need to use it.

“We’re changing her middle name,” he says.

I keep my voice firm and steady when I respond. “We named her Emerson after your brother. That’s your connection to her name. Her middle name is
my
connection. It’s only fair. You’re reading too much into it.”

I try to sidestep around him, but he moves with me.

I glance over my shoulder to measure the distance between myself and the ledge. Not that I feel like he’d throw me over it, but I also didn’t think he’d be capable of shoving me down a flight of stairs.

“Does he know?” Ryle asks.

He doesn’t have to say Atlas’s name for me to know exactly who he’s talking about. I feel the guilt swallowing me, and I’m worried Ryle can sense it.

Atlas does know Emerson’s middle name is Dory, because I made it a point to tell him. But I honestly didn’t name my daughter for Atlas. I named her for
me
. Dory was my favorite character before I even knew Atlas Corrigan existed. I admired her strength, and I only named her that because strength is the one trait I hope my daughter has more than anything else.

But Ryle’s reaction is making me want to apologize, because
Finding Nemo
does mean something to both Atlas and me, and I knew it when I ran after Atlas on the street to tell him about her middle name.

Maybe Ryle deserves to be angry.

Therein lies our issue, though. Ryle can be angry, but that doesn’t mean I deserve everything that accompanies his anger. I’m falling back into that same trap of forgetting that nothing I could do would warrant his extreme past reactions.

I may not be perfect, but I don’t deserve to fear for my life every time I make a mistake. And this may have been a mistake that deserves more discussion, but I don’t feel comfortable having a conversation about it with Ryle on a rooftop without witnesses.

“You’re making me nervous. Can we please go back downstairs?”

Ryle’s entire demeanor changes as soon as I say that. It’s like he punctures against the sharp insult. “Lily,
come on
.” He moves away from the door and walks all the way to the other side of the balcony. “We’re arguing. People argue.
Christ.
” He spins away from me, giving me his back now.

Here comes the gaslighting. He’s attempting to make me feel crazy for being scared, even though my fear is more than warranted. I stare at him for a moment, wondering if the argument is over or if he has more to say. I want it to be over, so I open the door to the stairwell.

“Lily, wait.”

I pause because his voice is much calmer, which leads me to believe he might be capable of a verbal disagreement rather than an explosive fight tonight. He walks back over to me with a pained expression. “I’m sorry. You know how I feel about anything related to him.”

I do know, which is precisely why I’ve had such conflicting feelings about Atlas potentially being a part of my life again. The simple idea of having to confront Ryle with that information makes me want to vomit. Especially now.

“It upset me to find out that our daughter’s middle name might have been something you chose to deliberately hurt me. You can’t expect something like that not to affect me.”

I lean against the wall and fold my arms over my chest. “It had nothing to do with you or Atlas and everything to do with me. I swear.” Just mentioning Atlas’s name out loud seems to get it stuck in the air between us, like it’s a tangible thing Ryle can reach out and punch.

Ryle nods once with a tight expression, but it appears that he accepts that answer. I honestly don’t know if he should. Maybe I did do it subconsciously to hurt him. I don’t even know at this point. His anger is making me question my intentions.

This all feels so grossly familiar.

We’re both quiet for a while. I just want to go to Emerson, but Ryle seems to have more to say, because he moves closer, placing a hand on the wall beside my head. I’m relieved that he doesn’t look angry anymore, but I’m not sure I like the look in his eye that has replaced the anger. It’s not the first time he’s looked at me this way since our separation.

I feel my entire body stiffen at his gradual change in demeanor. He moves a couple of inches closer,
too
close, and dips his head.

“Lily,” he says, his voice a scratchy whisper. “What are we
doing
?”

I don’t respond to him because I’m not sure why he’s asking that. We’re having a conversation. One he started.

He lifts a hand, fingering the collar of my jumpsuit, which is peeking out beneath my coat. When he sighs, his breath moves through my hair. “Everything would be so much easier if we could just…” Ryle pauses, maybe to think about the words he’s about to say. The words I don’t want to hear.

“Stop,” I whisper, preventing him from finishing.

He doesn’t complete his thought, but he also doesn’t back away. If anything, it feels like he moves even closer. I’ve done nothing in the past that would make him think it’s okay to move in on me like this. I do nothing that gives him hope for
us other than foster a civil coparenting relationship. He’s the one always trying to push my boundaries and straddle the line of what I’m okay with, and I’m honestly tired of it.

“What if I’ve changed?” he asks. “
Really
changed?” His eyes are full of a mixture of sincerity and sorrow.

It does nothing for me.
Absolutely nothing.
“I don’t care if you’ve changed, Ryle. I hope you
have
. But it’s not my responsibility to test that theory.”

Those words hit him hard. I see it when he has to take a moment to swallow whatever unkind response he knows he shouldn’t give me right now. He stops talking, stops looking at me, stops hovering.

He huffs, frustrated, and then backs away and makes his way toward the stairs, hopefully to his own apartment. He slams the door shut behind him.

I don’t immediately follow, for obvious reasons. I need space. I need to process.

This isn’t the first time he’s asked me what we’re doing—like our divorce is some long game I’m playing. Sometimes he’ll say it in passing, sometimes in a text. Sometimes he makes it a joke. But every time he suggests how senseless our divorce is, I recognize it for what it is. A manipulation tactic. He thinks if he treats our divorce like we’re being silly, I’ll eventually agree with him and take him back.

His life would be easier if I took him back. Allysa’s and Marshall’s lives might even be made easier by it, because they wouldn’t have to dance around our divorce and their relationship with him.

But
my
life wouldn’t be easier. There’s nothing easy about fearing for your safety any time you make a misstep.

Emerson’s
life wouldn’t be easier. I’ve lived her life. There’s nothing easy about living in that kind of household.

I wait for my anger to dissipate before heading back downstairs, but it doesn’t. It just builds and builds with every step I descend. I feel like the reaction I’m having is too big for what just happened, or maybe that’s just how I’ve conditioned myself to feel when I’m around Ryle. Maybe it’s a combination of that and my lack of sleep. Maybe it’s the date with Atlas that I almost ruined. Whatever it is that’s making me react so intensely catches up with me right outside of Allysa’s apartment door.

I need a moment to collect my emotions before being near my daughter, so I sit on the floor of the hallway to cry it out. I like to shed tears in private. Happens quite regularly, unfortunately, but I’ve been finding myself getting overwhelmed a lot. Divorce is overwhelming; being a single mother is overwhelming; running a business is overwhelming; dealing with an ex-husband who still scares you is overwhelming.

And then there’s that splinter of fear that creeps into my conscience when Ryle says something to suggest our divorce was a mistake. Because sometimes I do wonder if my life wouldn’t be so overwhelming if I still had a husband who shared some of the burdens of raising his child. And sometimes I wonder if I’m overreacting by not allowing my daughter to have overnights with her own father. Relationships and custody agreements don’t come with a blueprint, unfortunately.

I don’t know if every move I make is the right one, but I’m doing my best. I don’t need his manipulation and gaslighting on top of that.

I wish I were at home; I would walk straight to my jewelry box and pull out the list of reminders. I should take a picture of it so I always have it on my phone in the future. I definitely underestimate how difficult and confusing interactions with Ryle can be.

How do people leave these cycles when they don’t have the resources I had or the support from their friends and family? How do they possibly stay strong enough every second of the day? I feel like all it takes is one weak, insecure moment in the presence of your ex to convince yourself you made the wrong decision.

Anyone who has ever left a manipulative, abusive spouse and somehow stayed that course deserves a medal. A statue. A freaking
superhero
movie.

Society has obviously been worshipping the wrong heroes this whole time because I’m convinced it takes less strength to pick up a building than it does to permanently leave an abusive situation.

I’m still crying a few minutes later when I hear Allysa’s door open. I look up to find Marshall exiting the apartment carrying two bags of trash. He pauses when he sees me sitting on the floor.

“Oh.” His eyes dart around, as if he’s hoping someone else will help me. Not that I need help. I just needed a moment of respite.

Marshall sets the bags on the floor and walks over. He takes a seat across from me and stretches out his legs. He scratches uncomfortably at his knee. “I’m not sure what to say. I’m not good at this.”

His discomfort makes me laugh through my tears. I toss
up a frustrated hand. “I’m fine. I just need to cry sometimes when Ryle and I fight.”

Marshall pulls up a leg like he’s about to stand up and go after Ryle. “Did he hurt you?”

“No. No, he was fairly calm.”

Marshall relaxes back to the floor, and I don’t know why, maybe it’s because he’s the unlucky one in front of me right now, but I unload all my thoughts on him.

“I think that’s the problem—that he actually had a
right
to be mad at me this time, and he was relatively calm about it. Sometimes we can argue, and it doesn’t lead to anything more than a disagreement. And when that happens, I start to question whether I overreacted by asking for a divorce. I mean, I know I didn’t overreact. I
know
I didn’t. But he has this way of planting seeds of doubt in me, like maybe things could have gotten better if I just gave him more time to work on himself.” I feel bad that I’m laying all this on Marshall. It’s not fair to him because Ryle is his best friend. “I’m sorry. This isn’t your issue.”

“Allysa cheated on me.”

Marshall’s words stun me silent for a good five seconds. “Wh-what?”

“It was a long time ago. We worked through it, but dammit, it hurt like hell. She broke my heart.”

I’m shaking my head in an attempt to process this information. He keeps talking, though, so I try to keep up.

“We weren’t in a good place. We were going to different colleges and trying to make long distance work, and we were young. And it wasn’t even anything big. She had a drunk make-out with some guy at a party before she remembered
how amazing I am. But when she told me… I’ve never been so angry in my life. Nothing had ever cut me like that did. I wanted to retaliate: I wanted to cheat on her, so she’d know how it felt; I wanted to slash her tires and max out her credit cards and burn all her clothes. But no matter how mad I was, when she was standing right in front of me, I never, not for one second, thought about physically hurting her. If anything, I just wanted to hug her and cry on her shoulder.”

Marshall looks at me with sincerity. “When I think about Ryle hitting you… I get absurdly angry. Because I love him. I do. He’s been my best friend since we were kids. But I also hate him for not being better. Nothing you have done and nothing you could do would excuse any man’s hands on you out of anger. Remember that, Lily. You made the right choice by leaving that situation. You should never feel guilty for that. Pride is the only thing you should feel.”

I had no idea how heavily any of this was weighing on me, but Marshall’s words lift so much weight off me, I feel like I could float.

I’m not sure those words could mean more coming from anyone else. There’s something about getting validation from someone who loves Ryle like a brother that’s reaffirming. Empowering.

“You’re wrong, Marshall. You’re pretty damn good at this.”

Marshall smiles and then helps me to my feet. He picks up his trash bags and I head back inside their apartment to find my daughter and hug her so tight.

Chapter Thirteen
Atlas

It’s amazing how a night can go from being something I’ve been hoping would happen for years, to something I’ve been dreading would happen for years.

If I hadn’t received that text just as I was dropping off Lily, I absolutely would have kissed her. But I want our first kiss as adults to be free from distraction.

The text was from Darin, informing me that my mother is at Bib’s. I didn’t tell Lily about the text because I hadn’t yet told her my mother was attempting to work her way back into my life. And then as soon as I told her about my mother calling me, I regretted it. The date was going so well, and I was risking that by ending it on such a somber note.

I didn’t text Darin back because I didn’t want to interrupt my time with Lily. But even after the date ended and we drove away in separate cars, I still didn’t text Darin back. I drove around for half an hour trying to figure out what to do.

I’m hoping my mother got tired of waiting for me. I took my time arriving back to the restaurant, but I’m here now, and I guess I need to confront this. She seems adamant about speaking with me.

I park in the alley behind Bib’s so that I can go through the back door in case she’s waiting in the restaurant lobby,
or at a table. I’m not sure she would recognize me if she saw me, but I’d rather have the advantage by approaching her on my terms.

Darin notices me enter through the back door and immediately makes his way over.

“You get my text?”

I nod and remove my coat. “I did. Is she still here?”

“Yeah, she insisted on waiting. I sat her at table eight.”

“Thanks.”

Darin looks at me cautiously. “Maybe I’m overstepping, but… I swear you said your mother was dead.”

That almost makes me laugh. “I never said
dead
. I said she was gone. There’s a difference.”

“I can tell her you aren’t coming in tonight.” He must sense the storm brewing.

“It’s okay. I have a feeling she isn’t going away until I talk to her.”

Darin nods and then spins to head back to his station in the kitchen.

I’m glad he’s not asking too many questions, since I have no idea why she’s here, or who she even is now. She probably wants money. Hell, I’d give it to her if it means I don’t have to deal with her calling or showing up again.

I should prepare for that outcome. I go to my office and grab a handful of cash out of the safe and then I make my way through the kitchen doors, out into the restaurant. I hesitate before glancing at table eight.

When I do, I’m relieved to see her back is to me.

I calm myself with a deep breath and then I make my way over to her. I don’t want to have to hug her or fake
niceties, so I let no time lag between us making eye contact and me taking a seat directly across from her.

She has the same unaffected expression she’s always had when she looks across the table at me. There’s a small frown playing at the corner of her mouth, but it’s always there. She’s constantly, albeit inadvertently, frowning.

She looks worn. It’s only been about thirteen or so years since I’ve seen her last, but there are decades’ worth of new lines that have formed around her eyes and mouth.

She takes me in for a moment. I know I look vastly different from the last time she saw me, but she makes no indication that she’s surprised by that. She’s completely stoic, as if I’m the one who should speak first. I don’t.

“Is this all yours?” she finally asks, waving a hand around the restaurant.

I nod.

“Wow.”

To anyone else watching us, they might think she’s impressed. But they don’t know her like I know her. That one word was meant as a putdown, as if she’s saying,
Wow, Atlas. You’re not smart enough for something like this.

“How much do you need?”

She rolls her eyes. “I’m not here for money.”

“What is it, then? You need a kidney? A
heart
?”

She leans back against her seat, resting her hands in her lap. “I forgot how hard it is to have a conversation with you.”

“Then why do you keep trying?”

My mother’s eyes narrow. She’s only ever known the version of me that was intimidated by her. I’m no longer intimidated. Just angry and disappointed.

She huffs, and then brings her arms back up to the table, folding them together. She looks at me pointedly. “I can’t find Josh. I was hoping you’ve talked to him.”

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve seen my mother, but I can’t for the life of me place anyone named Josh.
Who the hell is Josh? A new boyfriend she thinks I should know about? Is she still using drugs?

“He does this all the time but never for this long. They’re threatening to file truancy charges on me if he doesn’t show back up to school.”

I am so lost. “Who is Josh?”

Her head falls back as if she’s irritated that I’m not following along. “
Josh.
Your little brother. He ran away again.”

My…
brother
?

Brother.

“Did you know parents can go to jail for truancy violations? I’m looking at
jailtime
, Atlas.”

“I have a
brother
?”

“You knew I was pregnant when you ran away.”

I absolutely didn’t know…
“I didn’t run away—you kicked me out.” I don’t know why I clarify that; she’s fully aware of that fact. She’s just trying to deflect blame. But her kicking me out when she did makes so much more sense now. They had a baby on the way, and I no longer fit into the picture.

I bring both arms up and clasp my hands behind my head, frustrated. Shocked. Then I drop them to the table again and lean forward for clarity. “I have a
brother
? How old is he? Who’s his… Is he Tim’s son?”

“He’s eleven. And yes, Tim is his father, but he left years ago. I don’t even know where he lives now.”

I wait for this to fully hit. I was expecting anything and everything
but
this. I have so many questions, but the most important thing right now is to figure out where this kid is. “When was the last time you saw him?”

“About two weeks ago,” she says.

“And you reported it to the police?”

She makes a face. “No. Of course not. He’s not missing, he’s just trying to piss me off.”

I have to squeeze my temples to refrain from raising my voice. I still don’t understand how she found me or why she thinks an eleven-year-old kid is trying to teach her a lesson, but I’m laser focused on finding him now. “Did you move back to Boston? Did he go missing here?”

My mother makes a confused face. “Move back?”

It’s like we’re speaking two different languages. “Did you move back here or do you still live in Maine?”

“Oh, God,” she mutters, attempting to remember. “I came back, like, ten years ago? Josh was just a baby.”

She’s lived here for ten years?

“They’re going to arrest me, Atlas.”

Her child has been missing for two weeks, and she’s more worried about being arrested than she is about him.
Some people never change.
“What do you need me to do?”

“I don’t know. I was hoping he reached out to you and that maybe you knew where he was. But if you didn’t even know he existed—”

“Why would he reach out to me? Does he know about me? What does he know?”

“Other than your name? Nothing; you were never around.”

My adrenaline is rushing through me so fast, I’m shocked I’m still sitting across from her. My whole body is tense when I lean forward. “Let me get this straight. I have a little brother I never knew about, and he thinks I didn’t care that he
existed
?”

“I don’t think he actively thinks about you, Atlas. You’ve been absent his whole life.”

I ignore her dig because she’s wrong. Any kid that age would think about the brother they believed abandoned them. I’m sure he hates the idea of me. Hell, he’s probably the one who has been—
Shit. Of course
.

This explains so much. I would bet both of my restaurants that he’s the one who has been vandalizing them. And why the misspelling reminded me of my mother. The kid is eleven; I’m sure he’s capable of googling my information.

“Where do you live?” I ask her.

She practically squirms in her seat. “We’re in between houses, so we’ve been staying at the Risemore Inn for the past couple of months.”

“Go back there in case he shows up,” I suggest.

“I can’t afford to stay there anymore. I’m in between jobs, so I’m staying with a friend for a couple of days.”

I stand up and pull the money out of my pocket. I drop it on the table in front of her. “The number you called me on the other day—is that your cell?”

She nods, sliding the money off the table and into her hand.

“I’ll call you if I find out anything. Go back to the hotel and try to get the same room. He needs you to be there if he comes back.”

My mother nods, and for the first time, she looks somewhat ashamed. I leave her to sit in that feeling without saying goodbye. I’m hoping she’s feeling at least a fraction of what she made me feel for years. What she’s likely making my little brother feel right now.

I can’t believe this. She went and made a whole human and didn’t think to tell me?

I walk straight through the kitchen and out the back door. No one is in the alley right now, so I take a moment to pull myself together. I’m not sure I’ve ever been this stunned.

Her child is out there running the streets of Boston all alone and she waits two goddamn weeks before doing anything about it? I don’t know why it surprises me. This is who she is. It’s who she’s always been.

My phone begins to ring. I’m so on edge, I want to throw it at the dumpster, but when I see it’s Lily attempting to FaceTime me, I steady myself.

I slide my finger across the screen, prepared to tell her it isn’t a good time, but when her face pops up, it feels like the perfect time. I’m relieved to hear from her, even though it’s only been an hour since I last saw her. I’d give anything to reach through the phone and hug her.

“Hey.” I try to keep my voice stable, but there’s a sharpness to it that cuts through. She can tell because her expression grows concerned.

“Are you okay?”

I nod. “Things sort of went south after I went back to work. I’m fine, though.”

She smiles, but it’s kind of sad. “Yeah, my night went south, too.”

I didn’t notice at first, but it looks like she’s been crying. Her eyes are glassy and a little puffy. “Are
you
okay?”

She forces another smile. “I will be. I just wanted to say thank you for tonight before I went to sleep.”

I hate that she’s not standing in front of me right now. I don’t like seeing her sad; it reminds me too much of all the times I saw her sad when we were younger. At least back then I was close enough to hug her.
Maybe I still can.

“Would a hug make you feel better?”

“Obviously. I’ll be fine after I get some sleep, though. Talk tomorrow?”

I have no idea what happened between our date and this phone call, but she looks completely defeated. She looks very similar to how I feel.

“Hugs take two seconds, and you’ll sleep so much better. I’ll be back here before they even know I’ve left. What’s your address?”

A small grin peeks through her gloom. “You’re going to drive five miles just to give me a hug?”

“I’d
run
five miles just to give you a hug.”

That makes her smile even bigger. “I’ll text you my address. But don’t knock too loud; I just put Emmy down.”

“See you soon.”

BOOK: It Starts With Us (It Ends with Us #2)
3.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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