Santa owns the construction company, he said. ‘Nope. Still not doing it.’

I took the gift, tied in a bright ribbon that Jenny had decorated with the words Cora Pumpkin Spice Frozen Latte Dish Room Wallbanger.

I need to go home first, she said and glanced up at the hotel. Room is same?She slung her heavy black bag on her shoulder, trapping a swath of the wild hair. I will come.

We turned from each other, and I trudged with my old-man walk across the street and up the stairs, then back down to a liquor store next door, buying a bottle of wine, and up again.We hadn’t done anything that night either, as the wine on top of the pills knocked me out cold not long after she arrived. I had pulled her against my chest on the lumpy bed, both of us fully clothed. I didn’t want her in any other way, not then, not so soon, my groin still searing from the stitches and Corabelle still so close in my memory.When had we gotten busy? Within the two months? The ten jacks?

I stood up from the bench, restless, angry. Surely I hadn’t made so stupid a mistake. I headed back to the garage, racking my brain for the memory. How long had it been?I’d stayed a week in that hotel, then moved on. I didn’t see Rosa for a little while as I searched for someplace to live while I took the GED and got enrolled at UCSD. I got a job as a night stocker at a grocer.

Then I remembered. Graduation night, a couple weeks later. I’d been lonely and feeling pent up. I didn’t know a soul and hadn’t talked to anyone but the uptight night manager of the store, who kept all the employees on different aisles as we worked so we wouldn’t waste time.

I knew Corabelle was walking across the stage and that they wouldn’t be calling my name. I wondered if she’d think of where I should have been, the people I would have stood between.You wade through the pain, and the guilt, and the excuses you make to yourself. Stop drowning in alcohol to numb the fear, and suck up the bitter taste of accountability. You move on with who you are now. It’s not easy. If you think you screwed up that badly, then maybe you did, but you also have to leave room for the chance that you didn’t. Have you talked about it?

I shook my head. There were two of us who knew the whole truth, and that circle was big enough. I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of everyone’s vision of who I am. It’s so much prettier than the truth.Definitely not think-through-everything-twice Ember. She wouldn’t understand, and I’m not sure I could handle her reaction.

He swallowed and broke our stare like it had become too much because we both knew the truth—it had. That’s the hardest part, letting someone see who you really are—scars and all. I’m… He cleared his throat. You need to trust someone enough to tell them the truth. Make peace with it before it eats you alive. I listen really well if you don’t have anyone else.I scrambled to throw up a wall between us. It was safer when he was hurling snotty comments at me. That, I knew how to handle. But this Grayson? The one holding me carefully, keeping me warm while the storm raged outside, offering to help carry the crippling weight destroying me? I didn’t know what the hell to do with that one.

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