My gaze locks on her so I don’t see the first blow come, but I feel it and stumble to the side. I’m immediately shoved back into the middle. And then the taunting begins.
“You killed him.”
“Why do you deserve to live if he’s dead?”
“You should have died instead.”
“We want Nate, not you.”
Each slight is emphasized by another punch or kick. They come from all directions until I’m kneeling, breathless, on the ground. Yet they don’t stop.
“Got nothing to say for yourself, killer?”
I spit out the mouthful of blood I hold, but refuse to respond.
“You know nobody wants you here. Why don’t you just leave?”
At this, my gaze goes back to Lyssa. She had been turned away, but she looks to me at the same moment, as though their words affect her too. Her face is pale, almost green, and I want to believe it’s because she can’t stand the sight of me being hurt. But she doesn’t stop them either.
I’m not an idiot. I know we aren’t suddenly best friends or anything, but she’s come to the diner every Friday night for the past month just to chat. But it hasn’t changed anything. Not really. She still ignores me anywhere else she sees me. If she isn’t willing to admit we’re friends in front of some random local at the diner, she definitely isn’t going to do it now.
“You deserve everything you get.”
“Yeah, I do.” I speak the words to Lyssa and see her face crumple. A second later a kick lands in my stomach and knocks the air from my lungs. I collapse to the ground as the sound of sirens comes from nowhere and everyone scatters.
It takes over three weeks for Lyssa to appear, and she waits until I’m back at the diner—my first shift back. She didn’t bother coming to the hospital where I spent three days and nights hooked up to machines that monitored everything from my breathing, to my heartbeat, to my brainwaves. And she didn’t drop past the house when I was holed up in bed for three weeks recovering. I don’t know why I thought she might care about my broken rib or nose, or fractured fibula.
The diner is still busy and I glance at the clock. Nine-thirty. She’s too early. There are still six locals lingering over their food, all of whom will recognize her and report back to her parents—and anyone else who might be interested—that she’s talking to me.
Because of that, and because I’m peeved at her, I make her wait. We both ignore Marelle’s attempts at conversation until she gives up on us and focuses on the rest of the room instead.
A part of me wills Lyssa to leave, but another, greater part wants to see how long she’ll stay.
It’s nearing midnight when Marelle comes into the kitchen.
“Okay, Cade. Enough.” I lower the book I’m reading and look at her in confusion. “You’ve made the poor girl suffer plenty, waiting out there all night. Now go talk to her.”
I view Lyssa through the window into the dining area and I sigh. “And if I don’t want to?”
“I don’t care. We need to close up at some stage tonight and we can’t if she’s still sitting there like part of the furniture.”
“So tell her to go.”
“You don’t think I’ve tried that? She said she’s not leaving until she talks to you.”
“You own this place, Marelle. You get to say what happens, not her.”
“I’m not getting involved in whatever lover’s spat is going on between you two—” My mouth drops open at Marelle’s words, but I don’t get a chance to deny anything going on between me and Lyssa. That there never will be. “You’re not a little punk kid anymore, Cade. You’re old enough to sort this out yourself. And don’t think those bruises and cast are going to make me feel sorry for you so I’ll do your dirty work for you. It’s not going to happen. You hear me?”
I might have a crummy job, but I have an awesome boss, so I smile to show how much I appreciate all she’s done for me. I have no doubt others would have fired me for what happened, whether they knew the truth or not. Not Marelle. “Yes, ma’am. I hear ya.”
“Good. Now get your injured butt out there, boy, and let the girl apologize.”
My eyebrows rise at that. “How do you know I don’t need to apologize to her?”
“I’ve known you a long time, Cade. You don’t take offense easily. Whatever happened, it was her fault. But if you ask me, she looks like she’s been tormenting herself over it. She doesn’t need you adding to her guilt.” With that she’s back out the door and I’m alone. I watch Lyssa for ten more seconds before grabbing the crutches that have given me an element of freedom, and start to move. I go deliberately slow. Just because Marelle told me not to increase Lyssa’s guilt doesn’t mean I’m going to listen.
But it doesn’t matter because Lyssa doesn’t bother looking up until I reach her booth. And she looks terrible. Her eyes and nose are red and puffy and I know she’s been crying, but I refuse to be affected this time. I want her to cry over me. I hope she has a heart hidden in her somewhere. I hope she’s crushed. Just like I am.
She glances at the seat opposite in a pointed message that I refuse to grant. Finally she sighs. “Aren’t you going to sit down?”
“No. I’m not planning on being here long, so there’s no point.”
“Please, Cade …”
“No, Lys. Now who’s the one with no rights? You can’t come in here and expect anything of me anymore.” My anger overtakes me. Lyssa’s head drops and I see fresh tears fall down her cheeks.
“I know.” Her voice is barely audible, but I hear her.
I shift my weight and try to find a comfortable position on the crutches. “So why’d you bother?”
“Because … I couldn’t not come.” She looks at me with tear-filled eyes and my resolve fades even as I struggle to hold onto it.
I pull the crutches from beneath my arms and drop into the booth before immediately elevating my injured leg across the length of the seat. “Fine. Say whatever it was you came to say. I have to get home.”
“Are you going to listen?”
“I sat, didn’t I?”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“It means I’m here. Don’t push your luck.” A frown crosses her pretty face and I fight to hide a smile. “So, where will you start? Why you were there to begin with, or why you did nothing to stop it?”
“What do you mean I did nothing? Who do you think called the cops? How was I to know it would take them so long?” Her own anger has risen and she crosses her arms over her chest. I’m speechless. I never considered who called for help, but it makes sense that it was Lyssa. No one else cared what happened to me.
“Okay, but why were you even there? If you didn’t want to be, and you looked like you didn’t, then why put yourself through that? Why not just call the cops and go?”
“I wanted to. But I couldn’t. Not until—” She swallows, hard, and her eyes meet mine. “I knew you were safe.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I slide from the booth and onto my feet before wavering unsteadily as I contemplate reaching for the crutches that lie on the ground.
“What did I say?”
“It’s crap. All of it is crap.” I give up on the crutches and hop away. I’ve only gone two paces when Lyssa’s there and grabs my arm to keep me in place.
“How is it crap?”
I spin to face her and she steps back when she sees the anger on my face. “You have no idea. All they wanted, all they were looking for, was for someone to actually stand up and say no. To say it wasn’t okay. I’m not an idiot, Lyssa. Why do you think I haven’t bothered fighting back? Do you really think I feel so much guilt over Nate’s death that I’d allow myself to go through this every week?”
She sucks in a breath and her hand covers her mouth, whether to hide her horror or to keep her retort in check, I’m not sure and don’t care. Not anymore.
“I don’t fight because whenever I consider it I look into their eyes and I see my friends. Yeah, they’re beating up on me, but they’re just doing it because everyone else is. They’re waiting for someone to tell them not to, because they’re too chicken to say it themselves. They loved Nate, and they’re hurting. You said it yourself: everyone is hurting. This is just their way of letting it out. They need to be told to stop, and you could’ve done that. But you’re too chicken too.” I look her over from head to toe until my gaze rests on her eyes—those bright blue eyes. “You’re just like Nate. You’re a follower, not a leader. Not like everyone said.” My thoughts are spiraling and all I see is Nate in those final moments as I held him in my arms and he gave his last breaths. I don’t want to think of him that way. I always preferred the Nate from my childhood. The one who didn’t care about being popular, but being kind. The one who was always there for me. The one who was there when my dad left. That’s who I want to remember.
Her hand drops and her gaze hardens. “What does that mean?”
“It doesn’t matter.” I turn to leave and she grabs me once more.
“Yes it does. Come on, Cade, tell me what happened that night. I know he was driving. I saw the two of you leave the party.”
This is news. “You saw us leave?”
She glances away. “Yes. I—I saw what happened, Cade. I know why you went with him. Well, no, I don’t know why you went with him, but I know you tried to stop him. I know he wouldn’t listen to you.” She bites her lip and then asks the question that I know has been burning inside her since that night. “Why did you go with him? You knew he was in no condition to drive. That there was a chance something could happen.”
I shrug but know I have to give an answer. The only problem is I haven’t been able to answer that myself yet. “I was hoping I could still convince him to stop. As he drove around town like a maniac I kept telling him he was going to get himself killed. Then I told him he was going to get me killed. But he didn’t care. So I ended with the grand finale and told him if he didn’t stop we were through. I wouldn’t be friends with a drunken idiot. I mean, I’d been drinking too, but I wasn’t stupid enough to get behind a wheel.”
Lyssa considers my words and then the next obvious question comes. “But why was he so badly injured and all you had were a few scratches? That’s what I don’t understand. If you were in the car—”
“I wasn’t, okay? That’s the problem. What do you think I’ve been kicking myself over this whole time?” I run my fingers through my hair and teeter uncertainly on my one good foot. I hop over to the counter and rest on a stool. Lyssa slowly follows.
“Please, Cade. I’m so lost right now. What are you talking about?” I see the despair written all over her face as she fights an internal war: to trust me or believe in the goodness of her brother.
“I told him to pull the car over. I said I wasn’t going to die for him. He slowed down and said if I wanted out I could jump.” I close my eyes as the memories of that night, the sounds of the car colliding with the oak tree—the metal crumbling in on itself like an accordion, the glass shattering and flying through the sky like sharp shards of clear rain—assault me. I take a deep breath. “So I did.”
“What?” Lyssa grabs onto my hand where it rests on the counter, probably in an attempt to keep herself upright. I don’t know. I can’t notice anything anymore.
“He sped off, but the car was fishtailing all over the place. I know that by jumping out I stunned him. He wasn’t expecting me to actually do it. And he wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing. It’s my fault that he crashed.”
A heartbeat passes, and then, “Cade, he was drunk.”
“So was I.”
“You weren’t as bad as him. You never let yourself get that bad.” But I don’t want to listen, so I shake my head. “You tried to stop him. Don’t you see, it’s like you were saying: he needed someone to tell him no. You were doing that, but Nate wasn’t willing to listen. He did it to himself.” Her voice cracks as she admits that, and I know how hard it must be for her.
My hands shake as I finally look at her. “He was my best friend.”
“But I hate him right now. If he wasn’t such an idiot none of this would be happening. The rest of the town wouldn’t have gone insane because he wouldn’t have died.”
She bites her lip again before whispering, “Why don’t you just tell them what happened?”
“No. He’s already dead. He doesn’t need everyone remembering him this way.” On this I’m adamant. “And you can’t tell either, Lys. You have to promise. There’s a reason I haven’t told anyone … until now.”
“But it would stop the fighting—”
“I’d rather take a punch to the head every day and every night. Do you understand?”
She nods, but tears flow back into her eyes. “I can’t watch you go through that again. I felt like I was dying.”
I reach out and pull her into a tight embrace and she comes willingly. “Don’t worry,” I whisper into her hair. “It won’t be for much longer.”
She draws back but stays within the circle of my arms. And I decide I like having her there. “What are you talking about?”
“Mom warned me if anything else happened we were leaving. Going to hospital is a pretty major thing to happen. As soon as she finds another job we’re gone. Until then, she’s driving me to and from school.” I shrug as though I’m not bothered by the move but, as bad as everything is here it’s still home. Yet I’ll do whatever I need to make Mom happy.
Lyssa’s tears start again and she buries her face in my neck. Her arms squeeze around me in a death-grip like she never wants to let me go. “I can’t lose you too.”
“Hey, you’ll be fine. You’re strong, Lys. And it doesn’t have to be goodbye forever. Right?”
She nods her head, but we both know I wasn’t convincing anyone.
Mom looks like she’s about to get out of the car with me when we reach school on Monday. Because being chauffeured around isn’t embarrassing enough. “Relax, Mom. I’ll be fine. If I think anything is going to happen I’ll go to the principal’s office. Okay?”
“Forget that. He’ll just send you back to your class like nothing happened. Call the cops. I don’t care if it’s nothing. You call them and then you call me, got it?”
I smile across the car at her. “Yes, ma’am.”
“See you at three sharp.”
“See you then.” I pause. “Love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, Cade.” Tears form in her eyes, yet again, but this time I think they’re tears of joy. One thing to come from all this, it has brought Mom and me closer. Now we’re friends as well as mother and son. And it’s a bond that will never break.
I maneuver my way into the gates and toward the building when I stop. I didn’t think about this before. The easiest way for any of them to slow me down and get me on the ground is to knock away one or both of the crutches. I’m a walking target. Which means I’m a dead man. I’m about to turn and see if Mom has lingered when I feel a hand slip through mine. It’s an awkward thing to do with the metal crutch in place, but when I look down I don’t dare tell them to stop. Lyssa is staring up at me with a smile on her face. A genuine smile. Finally.
“What are you doing?” I whisper, yet I can’t help but give a small smile back.
“Telling them it’s not okay. Sorry. I’m a few weeks late.”
“Better late than never, right?”
“Right.” She slides her arm back out and I immediately miss the contact, but she doesn’t let me miss it long. She places her hand on my forearm and keeps it there as I push myself onward. We’re halfway to the main doors and everyone is staring, but she doesn’t care. And strangely, neither do I. She’s the one to break the silence. “So, do you think your mom is set on this whole moving thing, or can she be talked into staying?”
I glance down at her, and see the whisper of a smile on her lips. “I could probably convince her we belong here. Why?”
“Because, I’m going to need someone to drive me to school in about three weeks, assuming you’re able to drive by then,” she says as she taps my cast. “And until then, my car has really comfy seats.”
For the first time since the accident, I grin. The heaviness that has weighed me down is slowly lifting. I don’t know where my life is heading, but I know I’ll no longer be alone. And when I look into Lyssa’s eyes, I don’t just see the person Nate once was. I see the truth of what Lyssa is.
AUTHOR BIO: Kate Lee Phillips is a reader, a writer and a lover of all things YA. Her hope is to write stories that inspire, the way others have her. And create characters and worlds that linger long after the last sentence is finished. Dissonance is her first published story. For more details, including information about her YA novel saga The Darkness Series, check out her website and facebook page at www.kateleephillips.wix.com/author and https://www.facebook.com/k.lee.phillips