Madoc ran a hand though his hair and shook his head.
Finally, digging into his pocket, he pulled out his keys. “Jax and I want to show you something.”
As much as I hated riding instead of driving, I decided it was best not to challenge Madoc in his own car right now. Since Jax still drove my old ride, I could push him around, but Madoc and I weren’t at our old comfort level . . . yet.
He sped out of his ritzy community of upper-crust homes and down the quiet highway, the day’s last light still glowing through the trees on both sides of the road. Jax sat in the back, fiddling on his phone next to Pasha, who had insisted on coming—because she was bored—and Madoc still wasn’t talking to me. Framing Hanley’s “You Stupid Girl” played over the stereo, and I was still clenching my fists over the buzz running through my body after seeing Tate.
As we entered the more populated part of town and Madoc began navigating the residential streets, I figured out where we were going. We passed our old high school and the same street leading in where I used to watch Tate walking to and from school every day. The same corner where I used to catch the ice cream truck with her when we were younger.
And then we turned onto Fall Away Lane, and Madoc pulled to a halt in front of my old house, which now belonged to Jax.
I rubbed my sweaty palms down my pants, praying like hell that this was going somewhere good instead of bad.
But it took only a glance out the window before I noticed it.
I tried to speak, but my chest tightened and my words came out breathless. “What the hell happened?”
Not waiting for them to answer, I climbed out of the car and traipsed up the incline into the space between our houses. The closer I got, the more I didn’t want to face it.
Two cables looped around two branches on both sides of Tate’s and my tree and ran into the ground, securing the heavy maple in place. And at the trunk, what looked like some sort of steel brackets cut into the bark on top of and beneath a nearly two-foot slash across the width of the tree. I ran a hand through my hair, stopping mid-stroke as I took in the sight and tried to wrap my head around what could have done this.
“Tate.” I heard Madoc’s raspy voice from behind me.
But I barely heard him. I approached the tree, running my hand down the jagged trunk to the shallow gash, letting my fingers dip into the cut.
And then the bark bit into my skin as I curled my fist.
“She wouldn’t do this.” I swallowed down the trembling in my throat.
This tree was us. She would never do this. She would never try to cut it down!
“After you left, she went cold,” he started, and I felt him approach. “She wouldn’t talk about you. She wouldn’t come home on the weekends . . .” He trailed off, and I wished I didn’t have to hear this.
“I let her have time,” he continued. “I remembered how it felt when I lost Fallon. First loves are the worst pain.”
Except Tate never lost me. I was coming back for her.
“I came home one day the September after you left,” I heard Jax chime in. “And workmen were bringing down the tree.”
No. I closed my eyes.
He continued, “But when they sliced into it, she stopped them. She couldn’t do it.”
“I think she knew you would never have forgiven her,” Madoc added. “And she would never have forgiven herself once she got her head out of her ass.”
I bit the inside of my mouth to stifle my shaky breath. And then I opened my eyes, taking in the damage and almost hating her in that moment.
How could she?
“I understood at first,” Madoc told me. “I was with you the whole way, man. I knew what you needed to do.”
I finally turned around and met his eyes. He and Jax stood back, while Pasha had sat down on the grass with her bag of Sour Punch Bites, playing on her phone.
Madoc continued, “But then she stayed distant—she kept pulling away—and it was like slowly the family was breaking. All of us. She wasn’t Tate without you, and without you both, the rest of us had to struggle to keep things together. To feel normal.”
I dropped my head back, looking up at the bright green leaves fluttering in the early evening breeze. Aside from the gash, the tree looked healthy. It was repairing, thank goodness.
“After a while,” Madoc kept going, “and a lot of persuasion from me, she started to come around. To find her place without you. I think she felt like the fifth wheel all of the time.”
“I couldn’t be there for you and for her, Jared,” Madoc explained. “I don’t want to go into it. It’s Tate’s business, but I had to choose, and I’m not going to apologize for that. She needed me more.”
While I had a damn hard time understanding why he couldn’t be Tate’s and my friend at the same time, I was glad that if he had to choose, he chose her.
Tate had shut me out, she’d kicked me out, and she wouldn’t return texts or calls. But then I realized it wasn’t just me. She must’ve been different for everyone.
“There’s more,” Jax said hesitantly.
I let out an aggravated laugh, shaking my head. What now?
They started walking back from where we came. “Take a look in the front yard,” Madoc called out, gesturing in front of Tate’s house.
I didn’t have to walk far. When I spotted the FOR SALE sign on the other side of the driveway, the ache Madoc’s story had created in my gut turned to full-blown rage in my head.