Prologue: Dean – Present Day
Embers dart up into the breeze as the fire crackles like an old staticky radio. The scent of burning logs entangles with the familiar perfume of towering pines and moss tickles my senses. It’s a scent that should relax me. A scent I’ve known for so long, I’d sometimes pretend I could smell it, only to be able to drift off to sleep.
Today, though, it seems foreign, completely wrong and unwelcomed. A scent that’s captured me in a chokehold so I can neither inhale it nor heave it out.
It’s just stuck.
Taking another sip of my beer and placing the bottle in the sand, I strum her favorite melody on my guitar, Storms by Fleetwood Mac. The melody she taught me to play at ten when she gifted me my first guitar.
It’s still hard to believe she’s gone, the earth settling her in, wrapping her in its embrace for eternity. It’s hard to believe I won’t be exchanging new recipes and old songs, new expressions and old memories with her ever again. The woman I gave my heart to only minutes out of the womb almost forty years ago–the one who raised me right along with my mother. The grandmother who was so much more than her title.
My brother, Darian, throws a small stick into the fire before leaning back on his Adirondack chair and entangling his hand with his wife, Rani’s. He might only be mine and Garrett’s half-brother, but I’d caution anyone who said we didn’t have the same blood running through our veins. He may not have been Grams’ grandson, but she treated him just the same. “I still remember when I spent part of a summer here when I was eight or nine. Every single night, your grandparents would watch WWE religiously.”
Garrett chuckles but my chest tightens with memories of Grams and Grandpa exchanging their picks for who’d win the match. No one loved wrestling more than Grams, and no one could convince her it wasn’t real.
I still remember how she’d have dinner prepared extra early on nights when her favorite wrestlers were going to be on. Garrett and I spent so many of our childhood summers at this lake house, sitting knees-crossed on the couch, snuggled on either side of her. We’d cheer and boo right along with Grams, even though we knew the whole match was rigged.
“She was a kooky little thing.” I try to chuckle, but it comes out all wrong with a choked inhale. I’m just about to take another swig of my beer to soothe the sand inside my throat when her soft hand grasps mine.
Her. The fucking enigma I’ve spent nine years of my life trying to crack.
The woman who packed up her things and got ready to leave without so much as a discussion with me–the man she claims to be her best friend. The woman who set my heart ablaze the same day she quelled the pyre. The woman who changed me day-by-fucking-day, just to unravel me in one fucking night.
A night she told me to forget, to chalk it up as a blip in our history, a moment–or rather, six fucking hours–of lowered inhibitions and bad decisions. A night that’s replaced the scent of burning logs and pine that used to help me drift off to sleep. Because if I can’t have the source, then the memories will have to suffice.
I pull my hand from her grasp, blinking back tears.
Loss. The fucking loss of it all.
My two best friends. A woman I just buried, and a woman whose touch I can’t bury, no matter how hard I try.
We’ve shared a room together for the past four days we’ve been at Grams’s lake house, and even though I knew we should talk–something that used to be as natural as blinking or breathing–I shut her down each time.
Because she tried. She tried to talk to me, to tell me whatever her fucked-up reasoning was for not being back home–with me–but I couldn’t listen to the same bullshit again. So, aside from the times she held me in her arms, letting me mourn my grandmother while soothing me with her soft whispers well into the morning, we haven’t spoken a single word.
Because, really, there’s nothing to say, is there?
How could there be when she said it all so clearly that day?
Rani yawns before telling us she’ll see us in the morning when we’re all ready to head back home, and Darian follows after her like the lovesick puppy he is. Meanwhile, Garrett and Bella whisper God knows what to each other across from me on the other side of the fire. My twin brother might have married the woman sitting in his lap on a drunken whim, but the only thing I’ve seen him drunk on over the past four years is her.
Mala shifts in her chair before standing, her bare legs covered with goosebumps. No matter what the weather is, the woman has always had a vendetta against pants. She pulls the sleeves of her oversized sweatshirt over her hands and wraps her arms around her chest. “I think I’m going to take a little stroll around the beach.”
I watch her leave as the breeze picks up her shiny black hair–hair that looks and feels like spun silk. Her sneakered feet make small indentations in the sand as her hips sway with a lilt of their own.
Garrett and I exchange a glance, a silent message spoken and heard only by us. One that urges me to stop being the idiot he thinks I’m being.
But he has no clue. No one does.
It’s not that I can’t tell him–hell, he and Darian would be the first ones I’d tell if I committed murder and hid the body–but some fears can’t be voiced. Some fears are for you to grapple with all on your own.
I pluck the guitar strings a few more times before the weight of the breeze threatens to snuff the oxygen inside my lungs. Placing my guitar on the sand, I lean it against my chair and give my brother a nod before running after her.
The stars twinkle like a dusting of diamonds in the moonlit sky, the ripples in the lake overpowering the crackles of the fire behind me.
It doesn’t take long to find her, sitting on the beach with her bare knees drawn close to her chest, wrapped inside her covered arms like a blanket. I know she’s cold, but for as long as I’ve known her, she’s preferred it that way, claiming heat has always felt too suffocating to her.
I suppose I can’t blame her, especially not when you’ve lived through the horror she’s experienced.
As if she can feel me, she turns to watch me walk toward her before a wisp of hair gets caught between her lips and she pulls it off to tuck it behind her ear, darting her gaze away from mine.
“You promised you wouldn’t run away,” I start. “You promised to–”
“No, Dean.” She shuffles to her feet quicker than I would have thought possible given how cold she looked. “You fucking promised. You promised nothing would change. You promised that night wouldn’t affect us. Remember that? But it did, didn’t it? It changed everything! And all the years prior to that, when you told me you couldn’t, wouldn’t mess up what we have . . . or should I say, what we had?” She points between us. “What happened to that promise, huh?” She looks over at the lake with rage in her eyes. “I waited for you. Eight fucking years I stood on the sidelines, waiting for you . . .”
“Yeah?” I yell. “As if I fucking didn’t? You think you’re the only one who had front-row seats to watch a show you never wanted to see?”
She takes a step closer, her nostrils flaring. “So why didn’t you say anything when you had the chance? Why wait until I was finally moving on?”
“Moving on? Is that what you call it, sprinkles?” I chuckle mirthlessly. “Because the way I see it, you weren’t moving on; you were running.”
Her eyes sharpen on me. “Yeah, okay, I was running. But have you taken even one moment to consider why? Or is that too hard for you to do, given your brick of a brain?” She seethes. “I was running because I was fucking tired. Tired of waiting, tired of wanting and wishing–”
I heave in a shaky breath, letting the cold air compress my lungs as I hang on her words for dear life. Words she’s cut off, like if she says them, they’ll float away with the wind. “Wishing for what?”
She shakes her head, wiping her cheek with the sleeve of her sweatshirt, but the moment she does, another tear falls to replace it. “It doesn’t matter.” She chuckles hoarsely. “Why would it matter? I’m not the one who can make it matter. I never have been.”
I close the distance between us, rounding my palms over her biceps and making her look up at me. “Wishing for what, Mala? Say it.”
She sniffles, her tear-stained cheeks shining under the silvery effulgence of the night. Her frown intensifies as she whispers, “For it to be me.”