I could barely sleep, even with Kit’s arms wrapped tightly around me the whole night. This is my last day with everyone before I return to my life back in Pennsylvania, where I have back-to-back classes followed by an afternoon of teaching kids. Everything is so…scheduled. If you’d ask me prior to summer, I probably would’ve told you that’s exactly how I like it. But now, I’m not so sure. There was something so liberating about waking up, having the whole day to do something with the people I love, and seeing where the flow would take us. No structure. No responsibilities. No expectations.
I insisted I’d catch a flight back home, but in typical Kit fashion, he told me that he’s driving me, and that’s the end of the discussion. Four days on the road roundtrip for him, all so he can spend a few extra hours with me. I spent the better half of my morning crying over leaving. In return, Kit spent his better half making a schedule for when we can call and FaceTime, and he even picked out the weekends when he’s free to come and visit.
After the truth came out, the guys were all on board with our relationship. Gage yapped to everyone how he knew something was up. If we didn’t come clean, I think he would’ve eventually figured it out. There hasn’t been any change in how they’ve treated me, but I think that’s because they already saw me as family in the first place.
And the fans were more than supportive when they heard the news. I never imagined being paraded all over the internet, but article after article continued to roll out the story like it was the freshest thing since sliced bread. I’d even gained fifty thousand new Instagram followers overnight just because of Kit’s outreach.
I finish folding my last shirt, tucking it on top of the others shoved in my suitcase. I never realized how much of my stuff had taken up Kit’s space. His room looks so barren.
Aeris sits on the edge of the bed, sniffling into a wad of tissues. “I’m going to miss you so much,” she burbles, streaks of mascara slashing through her foundation.
“I’m only a call away, Aer. And I’ll be back for the holidays.” I shut the lid compartment and zip up the suitcase, propping it upright before placing it by the door. When I turn to face her, the tears rain down even harder, and I hug my future sister-in-law (fingers crossed) in my arms.
Aeris abandons her tissues to squeeze the living breath out of me, her strawberry and lavender aroma mantling me. She’s the closest thing I have to a girl best friend. I haven’t really made a lot of friends in college, so knowing that I can rely on her for anything…it’s something I hold close and dear to my heart.
When we pull away, I do my best to dab underneath her eyes without ruining her makeup, and she passes me a smile.
“Am I interrupting something?” a voice asks from the doorway.
I don’t know why I expected it to be Kit—maybe because I’m always searching for his voice—but the moment I turn toward the door, something dark and heavy gathers in my chest, contaminating the air around me.
It’s my brother.
He has one hand on the doorframe, the rest of his body shadowed, like he’s not sure if he’s invited in and doesn’t want to overstep his boundaries. There’s no anger circling him, no indignation in the storm-roughened gunmetal of his eyes, which have yet to turn back to their vibrant blue.
Aeris squeezes my arm one last time before she gives us the room, whispering something to Hayes on her way out.
I stay sitting where I am and let him come to me. I didn’t really know if we would talk before I left. I mean, it wouldn’t have been ideal if we didn’t, but I didn’t want to make him madder than he already was. Slowly, he drags his feet over to me, taking a seat beside me on the bed—though there seems to exist an invisible delineation that was never there before.
He doesn’t need to say anything for me to know that he’s hurting just as much as I am. Mussed hair, gaunt cheeks, pronounced circles under energy-sapped eyes. My stomach tangles with guilty ruminations, and my mouth drains of moisture, giving way to a rather uncomfortable swallow down my scratchy throat.
We speak at the same time.
“You go,” I mumble awkwardly, revisiting the amethyst resting against my chest, dipping my toe back into that old habit—one I thought I was strong enough to kick. I thought I wouldn’t wear it again, but goodbyes have always been hard for me.
Hayes takes in a belly-filling breath, then exhales heavily. It’s as if all of his rage has been vaporized, and it’s exiting his body in that single breath. When he looks at me, the only affliction on his face is regret.
“Faye, I…I don’t even know where to begin,” he whispers, tripping over his words.
It feels like there’s a battering ram of emotions beating on my chest, trying to break through the bone, trying to get to my slow-beating heart. Tears start to dollop my lower lids, and I fight the untamable quiver of my lip.
“I am so, so sorry. I have no excuse for the way I treated you. I should’ve never yelled. I should’ve listened. I was a fucking terrible brother. I was so upset that I overlooked what really mattered in the moment, and that was making sure that you were okay. I just…everything happened so quickly. I panicked, and I lashed out, and you didn’t deserve that at all.”
The genuineness in his voice, picked apart by restless nights of contrition, melts the wintry cold in my body, replacing it with a warmth I can feel all the way down to my toes. I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t expecting any of that to come out of my brother’s mouth.
Sensing that I’m not going to talk any time soon, he continues. “I couldn’t understand why you didn’t come to me. I was mad at myself for not realizing it soon enough, and that anger got redirected to you when it shouldn’t have been. I was so caught up in what I was feeling that I never took into consideration how you were feeling.”
Moisture teems over my rouged cheeks, a tattered cry stretching in my trachea. “Hayes…”
“I don’t deserve your forgiveness, Faye. I’m so ashamed of how I reacted. It’s no wonder you didn’t want to tell me. I’m a fucking mess. You needed me, and all I could focus on was my own pain. I never once thought to put myself in your shoes,” he blunders, zircon-blue piercing the fog in his eyes, looking like the brother I know again.
“It’s okay, Hayes,” I coo.
Wrinkles vandalize his skin, a frown sitting on bruised lips. “It’s not okay. I never created a space where you felt safe enough to come to me with this. You were carrying all this pain by yourself, all because you didn’t want to burden me. You could never burden me. Ever.”
Each of his words, trigger-sensitive, have my sobs and cries falling in a steady rhythm. “I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you so badly. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. It’s not that I was afraid of how you’d react—it’s that I was afraid of how you’d see me,” I reveal, feeling annihilated by the self-loathing, but at the same time, feeling freed from the prison cell I’d locked myself in.
Hayes grabs the hand that’s in my lap, staring into my tear-stained eyes with his, the softness of his touch juxtaposed with the urgency clinging to his face. “Faye, I would never see you any differently. I know you think that you’re only a responsibility to me, but you’re not. You’re my sister. You’re the most important person in my life.”
In that moment, my emotions crash over me in a tidal wave. Emotions that I’ve kept bottled for years, emotions that have varied from disgust to hatred to pity. All that exists now, however, is relief. A red needle finally tipping to the zero of a dashboard gauge.
I can’t find any words to say, so I hug him. I hug my brother for the first time this entire summer, burying my face into his shoulder, gripping the back of his shirt as if it’ll steady the shuddering of my muscles.
He embraces me with equal ardor, holding my limp body up, providing me with the support he always has. I don’t know how long I spend in his arms; I lose count of the number of wails that leave my mouth. I feel like a little girl again, running to my big brother to protect me from the absence of our father, from the harrowing death of our mother.
“Shh, it’s okay. I’m here,” he murmurs into my hair, stroking my back.
“I’m so sorry”—hiccup—“that I kept it from you.”
“I’m so sorry that I didn’t tell you about me and Kit. He’s your friend. You had every right to know about us. I felt terrible keeping it from you. I never wanted to go behind your back. I didn’t think you’d approve of us, and I love him so much, Hayes. I wasn’t ready to let him go. If it came down to you and him, I wouldn’t be able to pick.” Regurgitation after regurgitation. Words all strung together that play at two times speed.
Hayes pulls away from me so he can wipe the water cruising down my face, gently brushing over the dark circles under my eyes. “I’d never ask you to pick between us. All I’ve ever wanted for you is to be happy. And Kit makes you happy. That’s the best gift you could’ve ever given me.”
My clamoring heart refuses to slow, fluxes of breath increasing as they escape my parted lips. “But your happiness matters to me too. I’d never want to do anything to disappoint you.”
“You could never disappoint me. I’m so fucking proud of you. Proud of what you’ve accomplished, proud of who you’ve become. And your happiness matters to me just as much. All I’ve ever wanted is for you to find your person.”
“Aeris is your person, isn’t she?”
“She is. She really is. The way I feel when I’m with her—I could only hope that you feel at least a quarter of that in your life.”
The thoughts in my head hit a curb. A Kit-sized curb. “I feel everything when I’m with Kit. I feel loved, appreciated, respected. I don’t feel shame or sadness or regret. There are times when I completely forget about the rape because he loves my body like it was never tainted in the first place.”
Hayes frowns. “There’s nothing tainted about you.”
“I know that now,” I reply, feeling the chronic pain begin to evanesce from my aching body. “Kit’s shown me how to love myself again.”
It’s true. I never thought I’d be lovable after what happened to me. If someone could ruin my body so easily, then I believed there had to have been something wrong with it in the first place. I convinced myself that I was easy, or that I gave him the wrong impression, putting the blame on myself rather than him. Nobody would ever love something that’s damaged, right?
Kit proved to me just how wrong I was. He doesn’t see me as a victim. He sees me as a survivor.
“I’m glad he could be there for you when I couldn’t,” my brother says, the beginning of a smile pushing back his cheeks.
“Does this mean he’s the first boyfriend of mine that you won’t beat up?”
Hayes nudges my shoulder. “I guess I can let it slide this time.”
Easy, addictive laughter clouds the room, and I begin to feel the heaviness in my chest lift, letting my wheezing lungs take in fresh air. Fresh air for the first time since I got here.
A sudden seriousness hardens his expression, like a blade against whetstone. “Do you want to press charges?” he asks.
“Uh, Kit kind of took care of it.”
“Took care of it?”
“Remember when he came home with a bloody hand?”
Hayes shakes his hair, blond locks fringing down his temples, a chuckle purring in his throat. “That son of a bitch.”
Before this summer—before Kit—I wanted to forget about the rape. I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to pretend like it never happened, but that was stupid of me. It did happen. Like Kit said, it’s made me stronger. It’s made me who I am today. I can never truly forget about it, but I can stop being afraid of the memory. My trauma doesn’t own me. It doesn’t define me.
I lurch into my brother with one last air-squeezing hug, letting myself get lost in his sandalwood scent, letting his arms envelop me, letting the little girl in me revert back to early mornings when he’d help me get ready for school—when he’d hug me goodbye before dropping me off.
I miss the simplicity of that time. I miss the innocence of it. But I don’t hate where I am now. I thought I would, but I don’t. I let myself memorize the feeling of his touch, so I can remember it when I’m in Pennsylvania missing him. I don’t panic over the unknown like I usually would. I don’t yearn for control. I let myself move at my own pace, let myself come out from under the reigning thumb that’s controlled me all these years.
And instead of dreading the time away, I look forward to when I’ll get to see him again.