Page 44 of Dead to You

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I slip my hand under her shirt, tentatively, and she sucks in a breath. “My parents are upstairs,” is all she says, but it’s enough. I pull back and slow down. Hold her. We have plenty of time.

“I don’t want to mess this up,” I whisper.

“Neither do I,” she says.

We both breathe and sigh, and then we laugh at our synchronicity.

We take a walk. It’s thawing, some. Spring comes so late here, but it’s coming. The snow along the side of the road is hideous in its old age, graying all around from dirt and exhaust.

“I hate this part of winter,” Cami says. “I mean, I like that it’s not so cold, but it’s so ugly.”

We turn down an unfamiliar street and Cami takes my hand. “You’re quiet. Are you still feeling sick?”

I don’t want to think about it. “Just really mellow today,” I say. “Entertain me.”

Cami grins. “Okay, a duck walks into a bar—” She looks sidelong at me. “Stop me if you know this one.”

“I know this one,” I say. I grin and tickle her. I want to tell her so much that I love her, but I can’t. It’s way too soon.

We spend Sunday together after church, and it’s awesome being at her house, where I don’t have to always be on guard for Blake. There are no fights here. Her parents are easygoing and Cami’s mom is always shoving food at me, which is never a bad thing. We watch movies all together, and Cami and I snuggle up by their fireplace. It feels great to be here, like I’m on vacation or something.

But when I go home at night, it all comes flooding back. The tension in the house is heavy. And when I’m alone and I let my mind go, a little bit of doubt starts to creep in, like maybe I’ve gone completely batshit crazy or something. Like maybe Blake’s right and I’m not really Ethan. I touch my earlobes, and they are still attached, like always. Finally, I get brave enough to look through all my remaining photos, trying to get a good view of my ears. But there are none that give me an earlobe close up enough to tell. Blake has them all.

I find out Sunday night from my little informer friend that Blake got his precious computer and iPod taken away for what he did. And Mama lets us know via a note on the table that all of us except Gracie will be going to family counseling on Wednesday after school.

“You’re going to luck out again, little sister,” I say. “Can I go to Grandma and Grandpa’s with you instead?”

“Yeah!” she says. “They have weird snacks and Grandpa won’t play elevator with me ’cause his knees are fake.”

I laugh. I’d much rather play elevator than sit though another hour of hostility. “I wish I could, actually. But I can’t,” I say. It sucks. But maybe, eventually, the shrink will help. We can’t get any worse.

CHAPTER 44

It’s so hard to look at Blake out here at the bus stop. So hard to pretend like nothing happened. I stand with Cami and we hold hands now. It’s been long enough. And I’m not afraid of J-Dog anymore. Nobody can hurt me more than I’ve already been hurt.

I haven’t told Cami what happened. I can’t. I tried yesterday, but I just couldn’t get the words out. Maybe it’s best if nobody else ever finds out. Maybe that will make it go away.

Blake mostly looks angry. Sometimes I think he even looks a little bit sad. He doesn’t look at me. Not ever. I wonder if we’ll ever speak again.

I’ll tell you one thing: if we do, it’ll be because he’s apologizing. But even then, I don’t think I can ever forgive him. It feels to me like what he did was a crime, like he should go to jail for that, you know? For trying to make me into an imposter, into someone I’m not. What’s the word for that, anyway? I don’t think there is one.

I watch him at the bus stop, working his jaw, his eyes cold. And sometimes I think, What kind of life will we have as brothers? Will he come to my party when I graduate? Will we ever talk over waffles at the toaster again? I try to picture him and me, slapping backs and laughing about this mess later, going out to the beach with our friends and . . . whatever. I just can’t see it. Will he keep everything, everyone, away from me forever because he’s such a petty, jealous dickhead? Will he ever believe me?

I don’t think he ever will. Sometimes, when you see someone has made up their mind about something, you know they won’t even listen to reason. You see it on TV all the time, on the news, the talk shows. People sticking to their ridiculous beliefs because they made up their mind a long time ago and refuse to hear anything else, no matter how logical, no matter how thought-out, no matter how true. People get brainwashed in all sorts of ways. Not just me.

Blake is like that. He’s so bitter he convinced himself he’s right, and I don’t think he’ll ever change.

At school, I hold Cami’s hand proudly and I don’t flinch when J-Dog sees us together before the bell rings. I see his face blanch and I nod to him and keep walking to my locker. Then I walk Cami to her first class and I kiss her right there in front of everybody, kiss her like I love her, like I do, and I don’t care if anybody sees me or wants to punish me for PDA or fight me for getting the best girl in school. I’m not afraid. And I think J-Dog can tell I’m not afraid, because he never comes to me, never talks to me about it. And the sad thing is, he never tries to get Cami back. If it were me, I’d sure as hell try. I guess that shows you what kind of guy he really is.

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