Redemption 6

“Can I get an approximate timeline of all of this?” Meg requested. “You’ve jumped around a lot, this session.

“Sorry. I get reminded of stuff and just launch.” Meg nodded. “So, my grandpa died, Alexis left, Riley became a thing, summer bullshit happened– there was a lot of alcohol– Trisha and I started dating, I got the sewing job and met Nina, the hurricane hit and I met Kacey. That’s where we are right now.”

“Got it. From there?”

I was getting restless, feeling like pieces were missing, like I couldn’t get all of the information into such a short session. I shifted, and Meg tossed me a bean bag, giving me something to play with while I spoke. “Thanks. September was when Dakota and I started to sleep together again, on Bella’s birthday.”

“How did that happen?”

I squeezed the beanbag in my hand, watching the indents from my fingers slowly expanding back out. “He got drunk, and dad had to walk him upstairs.”

 

***

 

He was smashed, to be honest. I had come home a little earlier, to get ready for bed before my early morning shift the next day. From the bathroom as I brushed my teeth, I could hear Dakota giggling– he was a giggly drunk. Henry was talking him through the motions of coming upstairs.

“Brush your teeth, Bud,” Henry said, depositing Dakota into the room at the sink beside me. I watched, beyond amused, as Dakota struggled to get his teeth clean, while I washed my face. He finished, turned to Henry, and all but fell into his father’s arms. Henry grunted under Dakota’s weight and helped him limp to his bedroom.

A few minutes later, once I’d changed into pajamas, I got a text.

Can you help me to the bathroom?

It took monumental effort to laugh as quietly as I did. I went to Dakota’s bedroom door and cracked it open, finding him laying on his bed face up with the light on. “Come on, Nerd.”

He had a good thirty pounds on me, being considerably taller and more muscular. We made it to the bathroom and he promptly shut the door in my face. Snorting– like I hadn’t seen him naked before?– I leaned against the wall outside to wait for him.

Getting him back to bed was easier. He laughed as I dropped him in his bed– after which I realized he was hard. Very hard.

“You wouldn’t want to help me with that,” Dakota said, noticing where I was looking. “You don’t like that.”

Obviously, drunk-Dakota wasn’t nearly as observant as he thought he was. “I might, if you wanted me to.”

Which, naturally, dissolved into me going down on him. I wasn’t particularly good, but my enthusiasm made up for my lack of talent– much like other parts of my life. It was, for lack of a more delicate way to put it, the taste that made me gag and panic.

I went too far and the panic began, Dakota’s hand entwined in my hair. I pulled away and looked up, meeting his glazed eyes.

“Do you want to stop?” at my hesitation, he asked, “Do you want to do something else?” I nodded, and he pulled at my hair.

I mounted him, hoisting up my oversized tee shirt to my waist. His hands went to my hips, helping me as best he could, despite being drunk.

Something inside me felt completed in that moment. I gasped at having him inside me again, for the first time in so many months. But unlike the previous times we’d been together, this time, it hurt. Not just the ache of adjusting to his size– he was delightfully large– but the pain of being out of practice. I sucked in a breath that had nothing to do with pleasure and tensed, which only made things worse, before bracing myself against Dakota’s chest and starting to move.

The pain eased some, until, suddenly, he hoisted me off of him. I couldn’t tell if he’d finished– or, maybe I had? I didn’t think so, but still– but panic suddenly swept through me, alarmed at what I’d just caved to. And Dakota was drunk. I’d compromised my own beliefs on consent.

He shifted, inside me again in a moment, and I froze up. “I– stop,” I said. “I already came.” Now why the fuck had I said that? “Goodnight.”

I kissed his cheek, and was off of his bed in a second, running– like a coward– back to my own room after flipping off his bedroom light and closing his door.

 

***

 

I sighed after I stopped speaking. It was one of my biggest regrets– not the part where I’d slept with Dakota again, but the circumstances that had led to it.

“Did you ever–”

“Talk about it?” I guessed, before Meg could finish. “We barely talk about anything. I have to pry answers out of him. He’s the kind of autistic that’s hypo-empathetic, whereas I’m hyper-empathetic. I constantly need to communicate my feelings and have others do the same, to know I’m not overthinking or misreading them. From what I tell, he couldn’t care less.”

“That may be something you want to work on,” Meg suggested.

“I wish it was that easy.”

“So once that started again, how did things change?”

I shrugged. “Trisha and I broke up, but that wasn’t really a bad thing. She was pretty toxic. She and I were both sleeping with Dakota at that point, though for me it was mostly just giving him head.”

I quit my job as a seamstress almost immediately after losing Trisha. It was a relief not to be in their clutches anymore. The same day, I sat in my bed with my laptop, checking Chance’s website, only to find a posting for a convention host. Apparently Steph hosted conventions, on top of being a new mom and owning the theatre.

“Busy girl,” Meg commented.

“She’s my hero, but I can talk about that another time. I sent her an application, with a friendly little reminder of who I was and when I’d interned for her.”

“And you heard back!”

I grinned, wiggling in my seat. “Yeah. I went in to interview for her in mid December and got the job in January.”

“Dakota and his parents must have been so proud of you!”

“They were!” I could still feel the residual excitement from it. “But that was later. We got Myshka first.”

“She’s your younger dog, right?” I nodded. “That’s an interesting turn of events, and very stressful for everyone.”

“It was… interesting. The anniversary of Dakota’s Pop-Pop’s death was the day before. It was… tense. And about a week before that… I almost told him I was still in love with him.”

 

***

 

We were in Dakota’s office, which was routine for us now. I had dropped into his lap, mostly to annoy him for being a dick, as usual. His hands came up my ribcage to my chest, making me laugh at first, and then nearly purr in delight. I arched into his hands until he stopped, then turned with a pout.

“We could do something else if you like,” he said. I nodded.

It was on my knees that several things occurred to me: for one, I was getting slowly more comfortable with blow jobs. For another, I had never enjoyed giving head to anyone else in my life– only Dakota. And, most terrifying, I was still painfully in love with him.

I looked up when he tugged on my hair, harder than he had been before. I wondered if he could see my love for him in my glazed over eyes. I let it show on my face, as plain as day. Telling him would be too much– I didn’t want to ruin the fragile relationship we had now, the carefully constructed, albeit complicated, connection between us.

 

***

 

“Yeah, we got Myshka after that mess, and…” I shrugged. “Everything went to shit.”

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Redemption 5

“So you’ve told me you were celibate for some time,” Meg said. “What caused that?

My smile had no mirth to it. “He was using me.”

“That was a surprise to you,” Meg guessed.

“Actually, yes.”

 

***

 

We had a habit– I would poke and prod at him, sometimes wanting his attention, sometimes full of pent up frustration and a desperate urge to fight. It would become play fighting, which I loved. It helped with the anger, with the energy trapped inside me.

Then, sometimes, play fighting would turn into Dakota teasing me relentlessly– and then stopping, in the most infuriating way.

I loved it. I revelled in it. In some bizarre, selfish way, it made me believe he actually wanted me, on some level, the way he had before he’d broken up with Alexis.

The feeling didn’t last. Instead of relieving frustration, I started to get more frustrated. The anger began to build again.

I’d followed him into his room to have a conversation– which rapidly became an argument.

“Fight me,” I said.

“I’d win,” Dakota responded, smirking.

“Fuck you!”

“You’d like that.”

I launched myself at him, not really sure what I was intending to do, but he caught me easily and spun me, pressing my back against his chest. I struggled at first, until, to my delight– and dismay– he leaned down and bit me on the neck. The noise I made was definitely not one of protest. I arched back against him as his hand came up to wrap, gently but firmly, around my throat. I moaned. His other hand came up to caress my breast, and I pushed forward, desperate for more.

“I love getting you worked up,” He purred, and I froze. Just stopped moving and stood still.

I was frozen with rage.

Dakota paused, his hands loosening around me enough that I could step away. In a split second of absolute fury, I turned on my heel and slapped him across the face.

His stunned expression was enough to satisfy the urge to, for once, legitimately hurt him. I obviously already had. My left hand stung, twitching at my side, the fingers tingling.

“I’m thinking of using my right hand,” I said, barely loud enough for him to hear me. I was right handed, but the only other time I’d ever slapped someone, I’d used my left hand– I didn’t have enough control to pull back, and it forced me to follow through. If I used my right hand, the guilt would have stopped me before I’d even struck skin.

Dakota watched at me in utter silence.

“I’m livid right now,” I continued, in the same hushed tone. “I am…furious with you.” The anger, however, was rapidly becoming tears. “You don’t get to do that to me.” After a short moment, I said, “I’m sorry I hit you. Did I hurt you?”

“You startled me.” He avoided answering my actual question.

I nodded, then turned on my heel and walked out.

 

***

 

“You finally enforced your boundaries,” Meg said. She sounded proud. Immediately, I felt guilt bubble up inside me.

“That time,” I agreed. “It didn’t exactly last. I’m pretty sure I slept with him a week later, after spending the night in his bed, so there went any premise of boundaries.”

“Summer came pretty quickly after that,” Meg said, changing the subject. I tried not to project my own disappointment in myself onto her, but it was a challenge.

“Did it ever. I got a new mattress, a sewing table and a chair. My birth mom came down for her spring break with a friend and brought my sewing machine and serger down, as well as my makeup and some of my books, and other sewing stuff.”

“Eventful.” Meg waited for a second before continuing. “How were things with Dakota, after that confrontation?”

I snorted.

The summer was spent in a strange, spinning cycle with Dakota. He didn’t touch me anymore– which, sometimes, I was grateful for, and others, I absolutely despised. He sometimes wouldn’t even look at me. I dyed my hair blonde, desperate for change. Dakota and I got matching tattoos.

“Matching?”

I nodded at Meg’s question, turning to show her my shoulder blade, upon which sat the silhouette of a cat with the autism puzzle pieces inside, done in watercolor. “His parents got them, too, on their upper arms, and Dakota’s is on his rib cage. They were his idea and his design.”

“That’s very committed,” Meg said. “He obviously cares a lot about you to include you in that.”

I hummed my agreement.

One night in summer, Dakota brought home a girl, Trisha, who was, in every way, a delight. She was taller than me, with black ringlet curls that bounced at her shoulders, and sharp green eyes. We began to flirt, but then the guilt of flirting with someone who I knew was sleeping with Dakota hit me.

“I asked him if I could date her,” I said. Meg looked outright shocked. “Sorry, I believe my words were actually are you dating Trisha or planning to, can I date her if you’re not going to.”

“That’s a big step,” Meg acknowledged.

“He gave us his blessing,” I said. “She and I agreed to an open relationship because she’s in love with someone else. I told her everything about Dakota, and she shared her stories about him with me. She kept seeing him on the side and I kept wondering if he’d ever touch me again.”

“It sounds like a lot to handle.”

“Oh, it got worse.”

 

***

 

I landed the seamstress job for a company that worked with Chance, and the other theatres in the area, in July, barely a week after I began to date Trish. The moment I found out, I screamed, and burst into tears. Dakota was so proud of me he promised to take me out for drinks and games at the local video game bar.

I dolled myself up for our night out, singing as I did my makeup. Dakota’s signature double honk signaled his arrival, moments before he waltzed into my room, a smug grin on his face.

“I know the name of your theatre wife,” he announced.

“That girl I crushed on for two whole minutes last May, before my internship started?” I snickered, finishing my makeup. “I know her name, too. One of her coworkers mentioned it to me in passing during Brigadoon. How did you find her name out?”

Dakota leaned against my door frame. “The swing today usually works at the Children’s theatre,” he explained. “I told her about your crush.”

“You didn’t!”

“And described her. Short hair, right?”

“Yeah,” I said with a sigh, pulling my hair back into a ponytail.

“Well, once I described her, I got a name for you.”

“Well, let’s hear it, then,” I said, turning to face him.

He smirked at me. “It’s Katie.”

“Nope!” I grinned at him, smug to, for once, have the upper hand. “It’s Lynn.”

Dakota frowned. “Short, blonde hair, really bubbly?”

I shrugged. “The short and blonde part, yeah; the bubbly I wouldn’t know since I was watching her perform. Why?”

There was a beat, and then Dakota’s smirk returned. “She was our swing today.”

There went the upper hand. The noise I made was nearly batlike as I leapt out of my chair and ran up to him. “You’re kidding!” I grabbed his shirt and hung from him, a strange mix of desperation, excitement, and panic coursing through me. “You basically told her I was crushing on her? Did you get her number or anything? Does she like girls?”

Dakota laughed. “I got her Facebook,” he said, and pulled it up on his phone. “This is her, right?”

Her hair was a little longer than I remembered, no longer the boy cut she’d had before my internship, but it was her nonetheless. “How the fuck—“

“I’m just lucky,” Dakota said. I nearly growled at him.

“Lucky, indeed. Go get ready.”

The video game bar was a blast. I lost spectacularly to Dakota at MarioKart 8, beat two levels of Pacman, and he obliterated me in two other games I was, by that point, to remember.

I discovered, much to my dismay, that I loved mead. The drink I got was delightfully named Jigglypuff, after the pokemon, and was raspberry mead with Sprite in it. I had four in a row before I decided I wanted to go home, and tugged on Dakota’s sleeve in a bit of a daze.

“Ready for me to close the tab?” He asked. The question was almost affectionate. I nodded. “Alright, hang on.”

I followed him as he closed out the bar, then returned the game we’d checked out at the front counter.

I wasn’t too badly off, I thought, though I was hanging tightly onto Dakota’s arm as we walked toward his car. “You okay?” he asked.

“I’m good!” I giggled. “Thank you for taking me out. I had fun!”

“That’s good.” He deposited me– basically poured me– into the passenger seat, and when the world continued to move, I laid the seat back.

“Tired?”

“Dizzy.” Dakota started the car and backed out, and I had a horrible revelation– Mead was fine, so long as I was sitting, standing, or laying down. But in a moving vehicle, mead made me lose my shit.

To this day, I had absolutely no idea what we were talking about, probably how I was looking forward to my new job, but somewhere halfway through the conversation, I randomly said, “I trust you, Dakota.”

Dakota frowned. “Thanks?”

“I do!” I set my hand on his leg, laying on my side, partially tangled in my seatbelt. “I trust you with my body, and my heart.”

 

***

 

I hated the job as a seamstress. The environment was awful, silent, constantly judgmental. The employers were cruel and homophobic.

Garret came to see me, which was a lovely break from the bullshit. Caleb and I became much closer, absolute besties.

“Did you ever contemplate seeing one of them romantically?” Meg asked.

I shook my head. “Garret’s gay, and Caleb…” I shrugged. “I was never romantically or sexually attracted to him. I love him, and I would happily spend my life with him platonically, but…” I shrugged.

At my new job, I met Nina, a goth girl from New York with a Broadway personality.

“She and Dakota slept together almost immediately after meeting,” I said dryly.

“Did he sleep with a lot of girls?”

I shrugged. “He brought a lot of girls over but I have no idea how many he actually slept with. He says he’s told me all of them, because he wants us to communicate those things.”

“Were you two polyamorous?”

“Not officially.”

“You’ve mentioned Nina before. Tell me about her?”

“She was…” I looked for the words for a moment. “A lot. She was a lot. She made moves on me but I only wanted friendship. And then her flirting got in between Trisha and I.”

“That probably wasn’t a healthy relationship to begin with,” Meg pointed out.

“Oh, hell, no,” I said. “We enabled each other. She slept around. It was awful the entire time, but we enjoyed spending time together.”

The hurricane hit in mid-September. It was my first time meeting Dakota’s new fling, Kacey. She was tiny, not even five feet tall, with a boycut– like Riley, except I actually liked Kacey. The only drawback was how much older than Dakota she was– nearly thirty to his twenty-one. Still, she was hilarious, and I actually enjoyed spending the hurricane slumber party with her. Even Trisha seemed to not hate her, though she also didn’t particularly like her, either.

“Trish and I spent the entire night shitfaced,” I said.

“More alcohol abuse,” Meg pointed out.

“Oh, everytime Riley was in the house, I took shots,” I admitted. “Kacey wasn’t that bad, because I liked her.”

“Something about Riley was triggering to you.”

I snorted. “Yeah, she was a lying, cheating bitch, who was treating him exactly the way he treated me– but worse.”

“How could it be worse?”

“She kept telling him she was going to leave her boyfriend–up in my neck of the woods, in Delaware– for him. He never actually made that promise to me, he said he’d choose me if he could.”

“Instead, he chose her.”

“And ain’t karma just a flat out bitch?” I snorted. “She still leads him on. I have absolutely no idea what possesses him to believe her. He doesn’t tell me when he’s hanging out with her anymore, because he knows that I hate her with a burning passion.”

“Working with her now must be great.” Meg’s sarcasm wasn’t lost on me in the slightest. All I did was curl my lip. “So you have trouble knowing that he’s sexual with other women.”

I shrugged. “At first, it was awful, but things started to change after Trisha and I broke up.”

Redemption 4

“So last week, we left off on your birth family,” Meg reminded me, once I was situated on the love seat with an Eeyore plush in my arms. I nodded. “We’ve gone into some detail about that in the past. Can you give me a little brush up on how it fit in with Dakota?”

I nodded again. “My birth parents are divorced. Since then, Dad was all about buying my love, but emotionally, he was distant. I’m almost certain that’s where I got my autism, actually. Mom, on the other hand, wanted me in theory, but not reality.”

She’d pushed me off onto others— my grandparents, her siblings, my stepdad and his mom, one of her friends, and eventually, the man who sexually abused me for the first three years of high school.

She loved to collect strays, though, because she wanted “a lot of kids” (just not me). She collected Ernie, my older foster brother, the light of my life during middle and high school. Then came Jeffrey, the fucking pedophilic prick, because “oh his mom died he’s an orphan I can’t just let him (a full grown adult) go on without someone there for him!” Then came Emma, who managed to win over both of my parents, somehow. But me? I ruined her life. I cost too much money, and ruined her figure, and her social life.

Several times Mom had, while laughing, told me how she’d almost killed me, wanted to kill me, or wished she could send me to live with someone else. A few times she threatened me to my face, saying things such as “you won’t live to—“ whatever my upcoming birthday was. It was the funniest thing to her, apparently. Perfectly normal. By thirteen I knew I was going to move out for college. By sixteen I knew I would never go back, for anything but funerals and weddings. But of course, that’s not what happened. I went back, to work mostly, over the summers. And I hated every second of it.

“So you told this to Dakota’s parents?” Meg said, once I’d finished my heated rant.

“Yes, and Bella was already tipsy by that point.”

“And what did she say to this?”

“She said— and I quote— ‘we’ll just adopt you!’ And I, being me, laughed, and thought she was drunk.”

“Until she sent you the adoption papers.”

“Yup.” And what a goddamn shock that had been. Dakota had needed to hold me while I cried for an hour over it. “He holds me a lot when I cry. He held me when Joan, my step grandmother, died, and Mom— fucking Mom!— sent it to me over text. And when Grandpa died, too.”

“He knows you need coddling when you’re grieving,” Meg guessed.

“He did, once.” I shrugged. “Anyway, I told them point blank that I wasn’t planning on signing it until my grandmother died. The only relative I like, honestly.”

“Other than your grandfather.”

“Yes, but he died almost a month to the day after I said that, so.”

Bella and Henry started introducing me to their friends and acquaintances as their new daughter. They doted on me, spoiled me the way they did Dakota. I grew to love them as parents almost immediately. Dakota, too, began to introduce me that way.

“How did that make you feel?” Meg asked.

I gave her a tired look at her words, but answered, “confused, mostly. We talked about it, sort of, after Alexis was gone.”

 

***

 

“Where do we stand?” I didn’t know how else to ask him. “Your parents want me as a child. I’ve never had a family before.”

Dakota shrugged and kept watching his YouTube video. “I don’t want another serious relationship for awhile.”

“Oh.” But you said you’d choose me over Alexis, my traitorous heart wailed. I told it to shut up. “What about this new girl, this Riley?” I barely knew her. She didn’t seem too awful, but something about her irked me. Maybe just my own jealousy. Probably that, actually.

“She said she was willing to wait for me to sort myself out.”

“Wow.” It was all I could say.

“So I guess that leaves us as siblings,” Dakota finished. And that, I supposed, was that.

 

***

 

“You talked about that often, afterward, didn’t you?”

I shook my head. “Once or twice. I avoid it, to be honest. Just like I avoid telling him I’m still painfully and stupidly in love with him.”

Meg let that comment sit in the air between us for a moment before she next spoke. “Tell me about Riley.”

My lip curled of its own accord. “Fucking. Riley.

 

***

 

Fucking perfect Riley, with her goth makeup and her short hair. My height but flatter around the chest, she smiled as she and Dakota walked up to Chance theater to meet his parents and me, with the kind of slyness that meant they’d— no, actually, I didn’t want to think about that. Ever.

“It’s great to finally meet you!” Bella was enthusiastic as always, while Henry and I stood apart, judging Riley— aloud— to each other.

“I don’t like her,” I murmured.

“She looks like a boy,” he replied.

Still, we both smiled and greeted her, as we walked in together. Dakota was only in the matinee show that day, so we were all set to have lunch at EJ’s before the show, then go celebrate Henry’s birthday afterward.

The show was wonderful as ever— Dakota had been cast as the Wolf in Shrek, among other ensemble characters, but that was his favorite thing about the show. When it was over, we waited in the lobby and Bella picked Riley’s brain, talking about her job— she was a costume girl, relatively new. I felt spurned by the entire theater for a split second, before remembering that no one knew I was still in the area.

I pulled out my phone and texted a newer friend, Garret.

Just met Dakota’s rebound. This bitch is shifty, and it’s driving me insane.

Garret had been a close internet friend of mine for a few months; the kind of person I could talk to about my problems without the fear that someone important— namely Alexis or Dakota’s parents— would find out. I’d even stopped telling Emma and Rosie most of what was going on.

Wow is she a walking cliche or just really shady?

Shady.

Leave it to Garret to know exactly what I was trying to say without me having to spell it out entirely.

Dakota returned, some makeup still on his face, which Riley immediately reached up to fix. I turned away to roll my eyes st Henry, who laughed.

We all headed to an Irish pub in the area. I hadn’t eaten much that day, or had any water, but I was ready for alcohol of any kind.

The waitress was bubbly and bright when she asked for our drink orders. “Jameson and ginger ale,” I rattled off. She turned to Dakota.

“Something fruity,” he said.

“He likes juice based drinks,” Bella interjected. “Anything sweet.”

“I’ve got just the thing,” the waitress said.

She came back with a Sex on the Beach. We placed our orders as I downed my Jameson and ginger ale in less than twenty minutes.

“Damn girl,” Bella said. “Relax. I know your grandfather just died but you don’t have to drink yourself into a coma.” I flinched. I’d only been back from the funeral a week at that point. “Drink some water. Have some soft pretzels.” She shoved the appetizer in front of me, so I conceded, munching on the salty dough as I listened to Riley talk about her accomplishments.

“Do you not like it?” Bella said, looking at Dakota’s barely touched drink. He shrugged.

“Can I try?” I asked. “I’ve never had it before.” Dakota pushed it my way, and I took a sip.

That, apparently, had been the actual worst plan. I downed it in twenty more minutes, before realizing, suddenly, that I was too shitfaced to function.

“Mom.” I said it without thinking, staring at Bella’s face. “Can you call me a cab? Please?”

“You drank too much too fast,” she scolded, though there was no venom to it.

She all but dropped me, and my packaged dinner, into the Uber she’d called, with the instructions to the driver to let me sleep until he reached the house. When he had, he gently woke me. I was lucid, and able to walk— not in a line, but upright and mostly unassisted. I thanked him and climbed out of his car, walked up to the front door, and let myself in.

The world was darkness and the sound of Duchess losing her mind. Alexis had moved out and taken Wade with her. I dragged myself to the fridge to store my food, then— whimpering in despair— up the stairs to the bathroom as the world spun around me.

I couldn’t stop thinking about perfect fucking Riley, with her raccoon eyeliner and her lack of cleavage, and how she’d somehow snagged away my Dakota, my reason for staying, the person who made me feel a thousand good things one moment and unrivaled sorrow the next. I lay down on the bathroom floor, my stomach rolling, as tears started to fall.

The first name on my phone was Garret. I was shaking too violently to push the buttons, but seeing his name— in double, no less— clicked something in me. I held down the button on my phone until voice activation clicked on.

“Call… Garret…” I managed through shaking breath, almost sobbing it. The phone rang once, and then, blessedly—

“Piper?” He sounded worried. “What’s wrong?”

I opened my mouth to say something, and a sob came out.

“Is it this new rebound of Dakota’s?”

“Uh-huh,” I forced out. “I’m really drunk, and she’s so fucking perfect, and I just—“ but reality was finally seeing in, and the truth came out, in high pitched, broken screams. “I don’t want to be in love with him anymore! I want him to love me the way I love him! I hate him!

And that was the root of it, wasn’t it?

“It’s okay,” Garret soothed. “It’s okay, Piper.”

He said he’d leave her for me if he could,” I continued, not bothering to explain that I’d switched people. I’d managed to stand, no longer nauseous, and force myself into my room, onto my bed. “And now he’s not with her and he chose someone else!” I tried to inhale, but it hurt, broken by my hysteria. “It’s— not— fair!”

I sucked in a breath, and with all the pain, all the sorrow, all the jealousy and hatred and the godawful love balled up inside me, I screamed. I screamed until my throat hurt, my face pressed into a pillow, kicking and crying and wanting it all to just stop.

Garret was still on the phone when I stopped, bless him. I looked at the wretched piece of hardware as it buzzed, Dakota’s name coming up on the screen, and I all but growled at it.

Did you get home okay?

Fucking prick.

Yes.

“Are you alright, Piper?”

Garret’s concern reminded me that he was there. “No,” I said flatly, and wiped tears from my face.

Is it okay if Riley comes cosplay shopping with us tomorrow?

Dakota’s message set off a whole new wave of anger inside me. Rather than sobbing, however, this time I was shouting, directing all of my fury at my phone.

“THIS— FUCKING—ASSHOLE—“

“What happened?”

The anger gave way to more sobs. “Tomorrow was supposed to be our day!” I wailed. “I don’t want her to come! It was supposed to be just us! He said it would be just us!

“Tell him,” Garret insisted. “Tell him!”

I really wanted it to be just us.

Okay sweetheart. We’ll be home soon.

I balked at the word sweetheart, more tears— seemingly endless tears— pouring from me. “He said okay,” I told Garret. “They’re on the way home.”

“Good,” Garret said. “You shouldn’t be alone. I wish I was closer so I could hug you.”

“Me too,” I began, the words strained as my throat closed again.

I cried until I heard the family— and the bitch— arrive home. Forcing myself to breathe, I thanked Garret and bid him goodnight.

“Don’t forget I’m here for you, if you still need me,” he said.

“I won’t.”

Dakota came up the stairs as soon as he was in the house. He’d missed the worst of the tears, but I was still weeping softly as he sat on my bed. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay,” I lied. “My head hurts.”

“I bet,” he agreed. “You drank those pretty fast.”

“Yeah.” I reached out, and he wrapped me in his arms. Despite everything, his embrace was comforting. I felt grounded again.

“What do you want to do?” He asked. “Go downstairs and be with Mom and Dad, or have one of them come up here?”

“I want you to stay,” I said against his chest.

“I know.” He shifted, and I whimpered. “Let’s get you downstairs.”

When I stood, I swayed. Dakota lifted me easily and carried me down the stairs. I tried not to look at Riley as he settled me on the couch. “I’m sorry,” I said, to the room.

“It’s okay,” Riley said, “I totally understand. I lost my grandfather recently too; I’m surprised it took you as long as it did to get drunk.”

I laughed, the taste of it bitter in my mouth.

Riley and Dakota left quickly. I scowled and focused on Bella as she stroked my hair and told me about something from her childhood— something I wouldn’t remember afterward, too drunk and exhausted to focus. Even Duchess took pity on me to curl up on my feet.

“Sleep in Dakota’s room tonight,” Bella suddenly said. I looked up at her and blinked, confused. “We haven’t gotten an actual mattress for your bed yet. His will be more comfortable.”

I nodded. “Okay.”

I was sober enough to walk by midnight. Slowly, achingly, I all but crawled up the stairs, went into Dakota’s room, and dropped onto the bed. The smell of him filled my soul, his absence so poignant that I almost changed my mind. But there, with his scent surrounding me and the soft bed under me, I ended up passing out before I could so much as roll over.

 

***

 

Meg was silent for a moment. “That must have been relieving,” she said, “to finally get it all out.”

“No, actually,” I admitted. “I felt worse the next day. In fact, I felt awful for months after that.”

“Did you ever tell him about it?”

“Sort of,” I said, “in passing. But not the gory details, so to speak.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged. “My feelings are not his responsibility. They’re mine. Does he deserve to know he hurt me? Maybe. But I won’t tell him unless it’s something he can directly fix, like if he’s hurting me during sex or something.”

“You can tell him you’re angry at him,” Meg said. “What would you say if he were here in the room right now, and receptive to what you had to tell him?”

I frowned. “To be honest, I don’t know yet. So much has happened. I don’t know what’s relevant anymore.”

“Then let’s catch up to the present— or is there more from last year?”

“Oh, there’s always more.”

Redemption 3

“So eventually,” Meg said, crossing her legs and leaning back into the chair, “Dakota did break up with Alexis.”

“Oh, yeah,” I affirmed. “That happened. It was… an interesting sequence of events. He tried the first time after taking us through Old Town Harper Cove, hitting up restaurants, seeing the sights. He wanted the last day to be a good memory for her, and he was hoping for an amicable split.” Meg actually snorted at that– joy, I was going to be a comedian! “That’s, obviously, not how that went down– in fact, she apparently heard from her own mother that he may be thinking of dumping her, because, naive and trusting soul that he is, he talked to her mom first to make sure she’d have a place to go.”

“Thoughtful of him,” Meg commented. I nodded.

“He really did care for Alexis,” I admitted. “He takes care of people he cares about, no matter the cost to him. But his autism sometimes gets in the way of his better judgement.”

“You can relate.”

“God, yes.” I shrugged. “There were a few other things before it happened. They went to a wedding together, where he got actually dressed up– slicked back hair, black suit, he was downright edible– and I was reminded of how uncomfortably attracted to him I was. He came up afterward and I’d fallen asleep on the futon, watching some movie. He carried me to bed and the first thing I told him was how much I liked his hair. Which I didn’t remember; he told me the next day.”

“That’s pretty cute.”

“Yeah.” I smiled. “It was a strangely romantic moment. Anyway, when he actually broke up with Alexis, I was out of town with Kimmy, celebrating her birthday for two days. I got home, and Alexis was driving away, while Dakota was in the living room curled up with his baby blanket. I don’t think I’ve ever related to him so much.”

“It was hard for him,” Meg began, and I nodded.

“Yeah, it was. I don’t doubt that.” I sighed. “Things got… weird, after that.”

“How so?”

“She wouldn’t move out, at first. Her mom and her sister both offered her a place to stay, but she refused. She slept on the futon in the loft.”

“The–”

“Yes, that futon.” Meg’s expression, a combination of disgust and pity, was priceless. “I know, right? It seemed a fitting punishment. I’d actually grown to hate her since his birthday– she was always whining at him, she’d literally left marks at his birthday from squeezing his arm– he still has scars!– and she would threaten to hurt herself if he left her. She was a bitch through and through.” I’d gotten off track, I realized. “Anyway, yeah, she wouldn’t leave, and I was supposed to dog sit that week. In fact, I was getting a gig dog sitting when…” And now I clammed up, the grief still, somehow, too strong.

 

***

 

The text came first. Monique and Dan, our neighbors, had asked me to dog sit, and Bella and Henry had gone out of their way to introduce me to them. Dakota was with us, and Alexis– well, who knew where she was, to be honest. Probably work, but we were never sure anymore.

Dan and Monique were the sweetest, and their puppies, Zuzu and George, were angels, though Zuzu was shy. There were cats, too, which was exciting, because I got along way better with cats than with dogs.

I was on the floor petting George– who was nearly sitting on me– when my phone buzzed. I frowned when I saw Mom on the message.

Call me

That was… weird, and ominous. What could make her ask me to–

My throat closed. I jumped up and looked at Dakota, saying his name– the only word that could come out of my mouth– and then excusing myself and stepping out of the house.

The phone only rang once.

“Piper? Sweetie, sit down.”

I sat, right on the concrete porch, and said, “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” Mom said calmly. “Grandpa passed away in his sleep last night.”

I’d known, realized from the blunt command in her text. “Is Gramma okay?”

“She’s hanging in there.”

“When do I come home?” How do I get home? I was paying rent with dog sitting money. My savings were shot.

“Gramma’s gonna fly you out on Thursday, the funeral is on Friday, and we’ll send you home Saturday.”

Thank god for Gramma. “Okay,” I said, through the oncoming tears.

 

***

 

“That’s awful,” Meg said. “How did Dakota and his family take it?”

“They were really supportive,” I said. “He died Sunday, I dog sat Monday through Wednesday– Alexis was not happy, she bitched the entire time about how much she wanted to see the dogs– and then Thursday through Saturday I was gone. When I got back, Alexis had all but moved out. She was staying with her sister for the week”

“That’s a start.”

“And Dakota had started sleeping with a new girl.”

Meg’s face clearly said are you fucking kidding me, but she diplomatically said, “That sounds stressful.”

“Oh, it was great,” I spat. “I got into his car, with a suitcase full of clothing and things I needed from Pennsylvania, and he immediately told me about how they’d used five condoms and he’d found her G spot.” The memory disgusted me. “I, unfortunately, work with this girl now.”

“Tell me about her?”

“Firstly, let me just say that that was the first night I spent in Dakota’s bed.”

“Wait. What?”

 

***

 

“Do you want to sleep with me tonight?”

The question came as soon as I opened my suitcase on the floor of the guest room– now mine, and now barren, without all of Alexis’s stuff in it. I looked up at him, still miserable from the past few days, and without a second thought, nodded. I grabbed a stuffed animal from my bed– one he’d gotten me, actually– and my stimming blanket, and followed him into his room. Once I was fully ready to sleep, I laid down beside him, and found him curled around me, spooning me.

I felt safer there than I’d felt in weeks, held by the person I loved He pressed kisses against my hair, and within minutes, I fell asleep.

A few days later, I got sick– violently ill. I’d been out with Caleb for the cough I’d gotten, but when I got home, the fever hit.

Bella was out of town, Henry was downstairs, and I had fallen asleep on the futon, a movie playing. Dakota carried me to his room, tucked me in, turned on the fan, and walked out to do his usual routine of watching YouTube videos in his office before crashing.

I woke up, shivering, and turned off the fan, before walking into his office, in a daze. “You’re home.”

“Yeah,” He said. “I carried you to bed.”

“Oh.” I swayed at the door. “I’m sick.”

“I know.”

It was all I remembered. My health only got worse from there. Within days I was too weak to walk, and couldn’t keep anything down. I laid on the couch in a blank daze, listening as Dakota came up the stairs. He knelt beside me and checked my head, frowning.

“Do you want a bath?” I nodded, exhausted. “Wait here.”

He disappeared somewhere, and I heard running water. Moments later, I heard him go into my room. “I’m setting up your laptop,” he explained. “What do you want to watch?”

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” I mumbled. “The arena tour. It’s on YouTube somewhere.”

“Okay.”

A few more minutes passed, then Dakota was beside me again. He picked me up and carried me, not to our bathroom, but to our parents. They had a much larger bath, that was steaming and full, and smelled sweet.

“I put in epsom salts,” Dakota said. “Eucalyptus I think?”

“I like it.”

He stood me up and helped me undress, and somehow, it was the least intimate thing I’d ever experienced. Moments later I was neck deep in steaming hot water, my muscles, tight from illness, releasing as the music from JCS played.

When my bath was done, I laid on the floor wrapped in a towel until Dakota was ready for me. He scooped me up and carried me back to my bed, making sure I had water and a trash can by my bed.

 

***

 

“It was the most selfless and kind thing he’s ever done,” I said. “At least, to my memory. I couldn’t move, but he didn’t force me to try and take care of myself, the way Helen always did.”

“I think the discussion of your Birth Mom is a good place to leave off for this session.”

I nodded my agreement. “Next week, then?”

“Next week.”

Redemption 2

The day of my audition, I arrived back at Dakota’s home hopeful, but terrified. The following day I’d be left living in my car, couch hopping on occasion, and living off of the savings I’d created during my internship.

Bella and Henry were at their desks when I walked in the door. Bella heard me enter and called my name, so I walked into the living room to greet them.

“How did it go?” She seemed so excited, I felt guilty for how nervous I felt.

“I think it went well,” I admitted, “But I could hear back anytime in the next six months, depending on if they cast me and what shows they cast me in, or I could be waitlisted through the season.”

“Oh god, that’s awful!” she cried. “Why can’t they tell you sooner?”

I shrugged, setting down my audition bag. “If they cast me for the entire season, or just for the first show, I’ll find out within a week. Otherwise, I find out right before rehearsals start for each show, and then go from there.”

“So where are you planning on going until then?”

I shrugged again. I was a terrible waitress, and even worse at retail work. I had been a pretty good receptionist once upon a time. “I have other areas I’m sending applications to,” I admitted. “Otherwise, I have no idea. Probably going back to Pennsylvania.”

Bella frowned. “That’s ridiculous, you’ll need to be here if you get the part. It’s paid, right?”

“Yes.” Bella hummed thoughtfully in response to that. “I’m gonna go shower off the sixteen layers of makeup I’m wearing,” I said, “before I have to fight Dakota for it when he gets home.”

Bella snorted. “You’d win that fight, I’m convinced he avoids the shower like the plague, but he’s somehow always clean anyway.”

“Now why does that not surprise me, at all?” I muttered, then decided he probably showered in the morning, or at work– Chance definitely had a shower in the dressing rooms, for performers who wore airbrush makeup; he probably showered between shows.

Clean and dry, I hid in the guest room, pulling my things together. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Dakota, but I knew it was coming. He’d be home in the evening, and then we’d eat, and then I’d thank his parents again, and say goodbye. In the morning, I’d leave.

I heard his tell tale double honk, signalling that he was home and had locked his car. Wade the cat leapt up form the futon as I left the guest room, and followed me down to the sweet song of Duchess yapping at top volume.

“Hey,” he said as I came down, then went to hug his mom. I turned into the kitchen– shock and surprise, dinner was ready– only for Bella to say my name, giving me pause. I turned to her and she stood up, walking toward me, and the kitchen.

“So,” She started, all business. I felt myself pale but tried to keep a polite smile on my face. “Rent here is three-hundred a month for Alexis– more for Dakota because he’s also paying for insurance and his car– so if you want to stay here, you can.”

“I– what?” I stared at her, then looked over at Dakota and Alexis– who apparently got home with him. “Really?”

“Of course,” Bella said, preparing her dinner plate. “You need to be close by if you get the job, not all the way up north, thirteen hours away.”

“I– wow.” And the award for eloquence goes to… “Thank you!”

“And Since it’s already halfway through January, you can just pay one-fifty this month,” she continued. I definitely started to tear up, but I was trying to ignore that fact. “Sound good?”

“Yes,” I said, hiccupping on the word. “Oh my god, thank you. Yes.”

“Good!” Settled, in her mind, Bella turned to sit down with her dinner, ending the conversation.

Dakota leaned over to whisper in my ear as I prepared my own dinner plate. “Welcome home.”

 

***

 

“That’s very kind of Bella to offer you a place to stay, and to continue to house you even when you didn’t hear back from the audition.” Meg said, and I nodded. “What did Alexis think of this?”

“She didn’t say anything at the time, but, unsurprisingly, it turned out she hated me.”

“What was living with them like?”

I shrugged. “I babysat for money at first, and I hated it– not the kid, but the family’s three dogs. I don’t mind dogs, but puppies drive me insane. So much energy. It’s overwhelming. And this was a boxer puppy, who was my size. Anyway, Alexis and I did some stuff together, like we were friends. She invited me out places, sometimes with Dakota. I drove her to his work on Valentine’s day so she could eat lunch with him, before he took her out for dinner.”

“You did?”

I shrugged. “Dakota… kept trying to fix things with her, despite also sleeping with me, on the regular. I tried to be as supportive as that as I could. We also fought, though. He didn’t know how he felt. He was… unhappy.”

“So you enabled him?”

Sighing, I said, “Yes. I did. He gave me a really sweet card, and I got him Steam money, because I have no idea how to show affection that’s not physical.” With a shrug, I added, “Alexis didn’t notice. She kept dragging him back in, every time he tried to get out.”

“When did that change?”

I smirked. “His birthday.”

 

***

 

Not long after Valentines day, I found myself getting all dolled up for Dakota’s birthday. Leather leggings, a loose top that fell from my shoulders, thigh high heeled boots, almost all black. I left my hair, shoulder-length by that point, down, and wore dark, smokey makeup. My nails were long, and the same shade of wine red as my lips.

The moment I walked out of my room, Dakota turned, looked me up and down, and grinned, mouthing Nice. I winked at him. The only dressing up he had done was to add a trilby to his usual outfit of black basketball shorts and a black tee shirt.

Alexis came out, looking like she’d rather be basically anywhere else, and throwing herself on Dakota. “Happy Birthday!”

He hugged her for a split second before extracting himself from her. “We’ve got to get going.”

She turned to me, nodding at my choice in outfit, before we all headed downstairs. Duchess and Wade were to be looked after by a neighbor of ours, and we were going to stay at a hotel, in four different rooms: Alexis and Dakota, Dakota’s parents, me with one of the friends Dakota had invited, and then the other two of his friends.

We took a Lyft to the hotel to meet the first round of people. Collin was the first to arrive, a short-ish man with long, multi-colored hair and glasses. I remembered working with him at Chance; at one point, he’d been a seamstress (tailor? whatever) there.

Dakota’s parents and I were sitting at the bar already, pregaming. They had beers in their hands, while I had a sweet pink wine. Collin spotted us and weaved through the sparse crowd of people to reach our table. He hugged me the moment he saw me, before turning to Dakota’s parents. “Where’s the birthday boy?”

“Upstairs getting ready with Alexis,” Henry said. I snorted, as did Collin.

“Sure.” He sat down beside me just as the waitress arrived, and ordered what I was having.

Hailey was the next to arrive. She was my height, her red hair down to her hips, with a smile that seemed to be permanently fixed on her pretty face. She hugged me, recognizing me even though I didn’t immediately recognize her, and then did the same thing Collin did.

Dakota and Alexis arrived moments later. She looked irritated– great way to start the night. He was hiding it better, but the stiffness of his shoulders betrayed him.

“There they are!” Bella was already looser from her beer, smiling at her son. “Ready to go get dinner?”

We hit an art show first to support one of Bella’s friends, then dinner at a pub nearby, where several more of Dakota’s friends– and some of Alexis’s family– met us. I was two drinks in, and starting to feel it, but insisted on going slowly, mostly because the thought of accidentally spilling my feelings for Zach to any of them was a horrifying thought.

At Bella’s insistence, our next stop was a gay bar.

“It’s his twenty-first birthday,” she insisted. “We’re going all out!”

Alexis was, so far, fine with the progression of events. We had a round of strawberry vodka shots bought for us by a drag queen. Alexis was distracted by one of her friends who’d met up with us, Cathy. Hailey, Collin and I made fun of the one male stripper– who was gyrating awkwardly to Justin Bieber in a corner– while I nursed a pineapple and malibu, and Dakota drank a grape soda with some sort of alcohol in it.

He dropped down beside me and handed me his drink. “Try this.”

I sipped, then shrugged. “Meh.”

“Same.” He handed it to Collin. “Want some?”

Collin sipped. “This is good!”

“Do you want it?”

Collin laughed as he drank more of Dakota’s drink. Bella appeared seconds later, having been chatting up the drag queen who’d bought us drinks. “This place is dead. Want to move on?”

I scowled at my unfinished drink, but Dakota said, “Yeah, let’s go.”

“I hate you,” I muttered, chugging the end of my drink. He laughed, took the grape concoction back from Collin, and did the same thing.

Now I was really feeling it. Bella had gotten us a car service for the night, a man with a sleek black suburban that could seat all of us. Collin and Hailey shoved me in the middle so I could see out the windshield and not get carsick, but at this point, I was too lit to care. We sang showtunes the whole way to our next stop– the strip club.

It was dark inside the strip club. Lights pulsed on a the stage, and– wow, there was my gay side, watching a girl flip upside down on a pole. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be her, or bend her over, but either way, I’d have been happy. Bella got us a table in a corner, and without pause, ordered a bottle of Grey Goose, and four lap dances.

“One for me, one for Dakota, one for Piper–”

“Me?” I asked, confused.

“You like girls, you’ll enjoy it!”

At this point, I decided, I’d enjoy it too much. Or hate it. There would be no in between.

“And one for Collin.”

“He’s gay?” I said, though I looked over to him for confirmation. He nodded.

“Oh, that’s right!” Bella was decidedly drunk now, her voice carrying through the small space like a train whistle. “One for Henry, then.”

Alexis looked like she was ready to spit acid as four scantily clad girls arrived. Things only went downhill, on her part, from there. I, on the other hand, discovered that communication during lap dances was weird as honest hell, but the view was amazing.

Turning to Dakota, I saw his face devoid of any emotion. Leaning forward slightly, I saw Alexis’s nails digging into his arm, her knuckles white from the effort. I had a vodka and cranberries in front of me, which I promptly picked up and sucked back halfway.

“No more after this for you,” Bella insisted. “You’re a lightweight.”

I am not drunk enough to be here, I thought bitterly, but nodded. “That’s probably a good idea.”

No more, naturally, meant a Green Tea shot and a Cinnabon shot, before I even finished my vodka and cranberries.  Alexis and Hailey– Cathy had disappeared on the way here, apparently because she had work the next day– kept leaving for the restroom, and Hailey had whispered in my ear that Alexis was having a bad time, considering the girls hanging all over Dakota. At one point, Alexis decided I needed to be the one to escort her to the bathroom, so I stood, allowing myself to be pulled along. It was a good plan, I decided, realizing that I hadn’t been to one in awhile, and I had a good deal of alcohol in me.

When we were washing our hands, I glanced at her. The room was painfully bright compared to the next room over, so I could see her smudged makeup and deeply set frown. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she muttered. “Thanks for coming back with me.”

“Thanks for making me come, I didn’t realize how badly I had to pee.”

We both laughed, and I felt some of my crippling jealousy ease. Maybe she wasn’t as awful as I thought. Maybe she was just insecure.

When we got back, another round of lap dances were ordered. Bella managed to slip a dancer so many twenties that she just sat and talked to Alexis for awhile, until she finally went to the bathroom by herself.

“Alright, Dakota,” Bella said, decidedly wasted at this point. I was feeling rather sedated myself, at this point. “When we get back to the hotel, you need to fuck her brains out. Just–” She made a hand motion, and a face, that looked more to me like strangling someone than screwing them, but the point still stood. “Make it so she can’t walk tomorrow.”

It hit me, then. Jealousy, combined with alcohol, made my mood tank. I whipped out my phone and pulled up Rose, my best friend back in PA.

Rosie I’m really drunk at Dakota’s birthday party and we’re at a strip club and his mom is telling him to fuck his girlfriends brains out. I want him to fuck my brains out :(:(:(

I didn’t hear back from her– honestly, the next morning I wouldn’t remember having sent that in the first place, and she’d laugh at me– but I ended up being distracted by Collin kissing my cheek, another girl sitting in my lap for three minutes, and finishing the bottle of Grey Goose so that Collin could take the bottle home and make a lamp, or some crafty ass shit.

We barely made it into the hotel, Hailey and Collin and I arm in arm headed up to the room, laughing the entire way. They deposited me into my hotel room, and from there, the world went fuzzy around the edges.

 

***

 

“I took a bath, and then I passed out,” I said. Meg nodded.

“Was that the first time you realized how jealous you were of Alexis?”

“Oh, hell no,” I said, scoffing. “No, I’d known for awhile, but that was the first time I considered that they were actively sleeping together.” Smirking, I added, “They were too drunk that night, and too hungover the next day, to do anything. Which I’m obviously not petty and happy about.”

“Obviously,” Meg mimicked. “Was that when your alcohol problems began?”

“Oh, no,” I said. “That was later. I’ll get to that.”

Redemption 1

Dr Meg Graham was the once-in-a-lifetime kind of therapist that never belittled or invalidated me, no matter how shitty my life’s choices were. Which was pretty much the only thing that kept me from turning tail every time I saw her and crying instead of talking.

Initially, I’d started seeing her in an attempt to address my PTSD symptoms. Between them and the autism, things had become unbearable, the days impossible to get through, the nights spent crying alone in the dark and contemplating— well, permanent decisions to impermanent problems.

She knew everything about my past, my childhood. She knew about Jay, the ex-stalker from my internship at Chance Theatre in Harper Cove, and all the drama that went with him. And— despite me avoiding the topic for a good five sessions— she knew about Dakota.

The office was small, the entire practice run out of an old house in town the way Chance was, but on a smaller scale. Meg’s office was upstairs, in what may have once been a bedroom. It was small, but it had a soft loveseat I could sit cross-legged on, and Eeyore plushies (fitting considering my depression) in various places around the room.

Meg herself looked like the kind of lower-middle-class Mom that made cookies for her kids and their friends, and let her kids stay up past bedtime.

Her round face was framed by soft brown waves, starting to grey near the front, and she always had a patient smile.

“So, Piper,” she greeted me, as she always did, once she’d closed her office door and sat down. “A couple of weeks ago you started telling me about Dakota. Do you remember where we left off last week?”

“The end of my internship at Chance,” I said, already cross legged and holding one of her Eeyores. Meg tended to specialize more with child assault victims, but after factoring in my autism and the time period of my initial trauma, she’d decided to keep me on rather than pawning me off onto another therapist.

“Good,” she said, “Let’s pick up from there. I think you covered going to his house a couple of days after your internship actually ended. Was that about the time you moved in?”

I smiled. “A few days before, yes.”

“Tell me about moving in with him.”

I smiled, though it was nearly devoid of humor. “It was supposed to be a week, and then I’d go back to Pennsylvania and suffer an eternity of wondering what might have been.”

Meg gave a wry smile. “But that’s not how that worked out, is it?”

“No.” I gazed at Eeyore as my smile turned sad. “No, it’s not.”

 

***

 

The night I moved in with Dakota, all I brought up was a bag full of clothes and a backpack with my laptop and some notebooks. I had an audition Fridday, and after that, no plan. I didn’t want to return to my mother in Pennsylvania, to listen to her tell me how my career choice would never work out, how I should just teach for the rest of my miserable existence like she did. I didn’t want to go to my father in West Virginia, and listen to the same shit but with a “why don’t you finish college” tagline. I had nowhere to live here and no one to live with.

So, Saturday, it seemed, I’d be living in my car until further notice.

Dakota opened the door at my text, grinning at me. His dark eyes sparkled, as they always seemed to, and his black hair was an absolute disaster.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said, stepping aside to let me in.

“Hi,” was all I could manage in response.

The first thing I did, of course, was fend off his hysterical dog (the mini cloud, in my opinion), Duchess, to go see his parents, Henry and Bella. Bella was just as wonderful as I remembered, all smiles the moment she saw me. Henry was just as oblivious as I remembered, because it took him a good thirty seconds to realize I was there and turn around.

“Hi!” Bella turned from her computer with a giant smile. “It’s good to see you!”

“It’s good to see you, too,” I said, being sure to glance at Henry to include him. “Thank you for letting me stay for a few days.”

“Of course!” Bella dominated the conversation, as usual. “We weren’t just going to let you sleep in your car.” I glanced at Dakota, trying to read if he had told them that, or if it was just a shot in the dark on Bella’s part, but his face remained impassive. “Besides, we love supporting the kids,” she continued. “What’s your audition for?”

“It’s for the season at Longwood Opera,” I said. “It’s paid, and I love to sing— I’m opera trained, actually— so I’m hoping it’ll get me through until something at Chance comes up.”

“Oh that’s wonderful,” Bella said.

“They’re kind of cliquish in theatre, though,” I continued. “I’m nervous I’ll be waitlisted.”

“Oh, that’s rough. Well, best of luck!” She gave me a wave that I took as a dismissal, so I thanked her and Henry both again, and turned to follow Dakota upstairs.

Wade the cat met me near the top of the stairs, where I paused to give him attention. It helped the crippling anxiety in my chest. This was the moment of truth— the moment I met Dakota’s girlfriend.

Alexis was the kind of person I could be friends with on a short term, occasional basis. When I’d met her, I’d recoiled from her clinginess to Dakota, her whiny voice, her perpetual sneer. Apparently she was a decent performer— a step in/swing for Chance and a few other theatres in the area— but that was where my knowledge of her ended.

She sat on the futon with a puzzle in front of her, ignoring whatever Dakota had on the TV. I waved, and she glanced up, nodded, and returned to her puzzle.

“The guest room is back here”, Dakota said, taking me to a room he’d shown me before, back by the bathroom. I followed him with my bags and slowly released the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

 

***

 

“And how was living with Alexis?” Meg asked. I shrugged.

“She was just the way I remembered her,” I said. “It’s kind of sad; we could have been friends, if she hadn’t been dating Dakota.”

“And she didn’t know you were in love with him.”

I scoffed. “No. But then, neither did he.”

“Oh?” She frowned. “Why not?”

“To be honest, I had no intention of telling him in the first place.” I looked at my nails, trying to hide my scowl. “I wouldn’t have told him if he hadn’t basically seduced it out of me.”

“Tell me about that, then.”

 

***

 

Naturally, even having Alexis living with him didn’t stop Dakota from finding a way to steal kisses, to touch me, to remind me of all the feelings I’d tried to bury before moving in. It was Wednesday night when Alexis had a show, and I found myself dragged onto his lap, his lips pressed to my neck as he rocked his hips beneath mine.

Gasping, I clutched his shoulders. The delight that always accompanied these flings shot through me. I forgot that I was supposed to be careful, distant. Just a friend.

I leaned down to kiss him, nibbling on his bottom lip. His hands tightened around my waist as he gazed up at me, his eyes dark with want. I slid my hands up under his shirt until he relented, letting me pull it off– but he responded in kind, pulling my tee shirt from my body and kissing down my chest.

Love coiled in my chest, my heart straining against my ribs, as though it wanted to come out. I cupped Dakota’s face, pressing my lips softly against his. These feelings– they were for him. He deserved to know the truth– to know that I was desperately, achingly in love with him.

Closing my eyes, I sucked in a breath. “I…”

He kissed my cheek, my neck, then my lips again. “Yes?”

The words were there, but something stopped me– like a rock lodged in my throat. I bit my lip rather than respond, still keeping my eyes shut, and then leaned down and rested my head on his shoulder.

“Look at me,” he said, but I shook my head. “No?” I shook my head again. “Are you scared to tell me?” His words were gentle, like his kisses. I nodded. “It’s easier if you can’t see me?” Another nod. He stroked my hair. “Take your time. It’s okay.”

The breath I drew was shuddering. I sat up, shoring my courage, and rested my forehead against his, my lips ghosting over his.

“I love you.”

Oh, god, I thought, tensing up immediately.

Dakota, of course, only laughed. “I was wondering when you were going to say it.”

I opened my eyes, if only to blink at him in utter confusion. “What? You knew?”

“Of course,” he said. “I just wanted you to say it.”

My heart clenched. “I was afraid I’d scare you off.”

He made a face that clearly told me I was insane. “No.” He kissed me, stroking my hair. “I love you too.”

“What?” I leaned back, staring at him in blatant awe. “You do?”

He laughed. “Of course I love you. I’d choose you over Alexis, if I could.” With that, he shifted, pinning me to the futon. His kisses became heated, passionate, and I responded in kind. I felt freed, like my heart had finally been released to him.

The alert on his phone interrupted us, and he pulled back to check it. “Alexis is headed home,” he said. I felt my heart drop.

Setting his phone down, he pushed me back down again, kissing me fiercely. “I love you,” he murmured against my lips, and then stood up to toss me my shirt.

 

***

 

“So he reciprocated your feelings, then?”

I sighed. “He did, once. At least, I think he did.”

“Does he not love you now?”

“I don’t know.” With a shrug, I continued, “He may have said it then because he didn’t think he’d have me forever. He may have said it just because I had, and he wanted to make me feel less like an idiot. Or maybe he really did love me, the way I love him.”

Meg set her chin in her hand, leaning forward. “So, what changed?”

Everything, I thought. But I knew what had really changed things, the crucial decision that had altered my entire future, and Dakota’s right along with it. That point in my life that, looking back, I could pinpoint exactly as the moment that changed everything.

“I stayed.”

Betrayal 22

Thursday afternoon I moved out of my dorm for good. My car was packed as well as we could get it, a couple things– namely the tree and some food stuff Kimmy would still need for the following semester– left behind.

Kimmy, Jane, Jane’s roommate Connie, Caleb, and I all headed out to a chinese buffet for dinner before I headed to Jane and Connie’s for the weekend. It was weird, in a good way, to hear them talk about their futures with such surety. They knew where they were going and how to get there. They knew what they wanted and what they were doing. It was all so strange. We all hit up Jane and Connie’s that night, playing games and drinking hard cider and wine coolers, until we all passed out either on the couch, in chairs, or on the floor. It turned out their “asshole” cat Sully was, indeed, extremely affectionate, and we got along swimmingly.

Friday I spent writing, pouring my internship into a diary, desperately trying to get it all out, all on paper. I got pretty far before Jane and Connie asked me out to get drinks and food. It was freeing, relieving, like a weight was gone from me. It felt as though those memories were no longer burning inside me, souring in my brain, rotting in my soul. Once we’d returned from dinner, I– drunkenly– continued to write, and ended up falling asleep on the couch again.

Saturday morning I woke up– Sully on my legs– and realized I was nervous. I was anxious, still, to go see Dakota. How utterly ridiculous was that, anyway?

I pushed it aside, like I did with everything else. Getting off the couch– much to Sully’s distaste– I went to the bag with a week’s worth of clothing in it and rummaged through, looking for my makeup. If anything could make me feel better, it was a little makeup in the face of my crippling anxiety.

Jane came into the bathroom as I was finishing up light makeup. “Sorry,” I said, whisking mascara through my lashes. “I’ll be out of your way in a minute.”

“No worries,” she said. “You going out today?”

“Spending the day with a friend,” I said, closing the mascara and gathering my makeup back into its travel bag. “I looked, unsurprisingly, like a freight train had hit me during the night, so some coverup and blush was called for.”

“You look fine,” Jane said.

I made a kissy face at her as I sailed out of the bathroom and back to the living room, which apparently was my room, for now, since I kept sleeping there. Ducking out of sight of the windows, I changed clothes, pulled my hair back, and sent Dakota the ready when you are text.

It was a couple of hours later– spent writing, of course– that I heard back from him.

Come on over. House is empty.

The anxiety had become excitement, thank goodness. I sped to his house, forgetting entirely to eat (why did I do that to myself? Fuck if I knew…) and arrived in half the time it should have taken me.

He answered the door as per usual, and–

“Ah, that must be Duchess.”

The yapping cloud stood at the entrance to the living room, vibrating with energy. Dakota snickered. “Yes, that’s Duchess.” When she continued to bark at me, he turned and shouted her name, creating a lull in the sound. “Go on upstairs,” he said, “she won’t stop until she can’t see you.”

I laughed, only to be trapped by a baby gate at the foot of the stairs. “Um…”

“It’s to keep her from getting into Wade’s upstairs litter box,” he explained.

“Ah,” I said, watching him open it. “Thanks.”

He followed me up and immediately turned on the TV, switching on a youtube channel I recognized but couldn’t remember the name of.

“Have you gotten Val’s snapchats?” He asked me. I nodded. “She’s been spamming me with them. Wanna send her one?”

I grinned and nodded again, leaning over to smile at his camera. “Do I have your Snapchat?” I asked, knowing the answer already. He shrugged and set his up so I could scan it. “Now I can see your face when I’m back in Pennsylvania.”

He hummed his agreement, pulling me against his side. Things started as they always did, with me leaning on his side, reaching up to poke his nose, to annoy him, which turned into us play-fighting– which rapidly became kissing and touching. He wasted no time in riling me up and stripping me down.

Distantly, panic set in. Would this be the last time? Would I ever see Dakota again after this– other than staying over for a few nights to get my auditions in order, before driving back up to Pennsylvania?

I clung to him the entire time, trying not to feel desperate. I didn’t want to lose him. I dragged him down to kiss him more than once, until he flipped us, and I laid across him, my lips on his neck as exhaustion caught up with me.

We stopped when I started to ache from him, stilling with me laying on his chest. He stroked my hair for a moment, before gently pushing me from him so he could sit up.

“Sorry,” I said, before I could stop myself. “Scars.”

“You’ve never actually told me about that,” he said. “In detail, anyway.”

I frowned. “Well, there’s not much to tell. I was a kid. Mom decided she wanted to adopt the orphaned son of her teacher friend, and he decided he had a thing for minors.” Dakota handed me my clothing and I began to dress. “If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have found out I was born defected, and I wouldn’t have known I needed surgery to keep myself from going into Toxic Shock Syndrome because of my own body’s defect.”

“Hmm.” He didn’t sound convinced, but he didn’t press. I appreciated him all the more for it.

It was mid afternoon, and I was painfully hungry, and he was not-exactly-subtly hinting that I should leave– especially when he handed me my purse. “Kicking me out?” I teased, grinning.

“Yeah, well,” he said, shrugging. “You’ll be back. Tuesday, you said?”

“Tuesday,” I agreed, following him downstairs.

I reached up to hug him as we reached the door– Duchess sleeping, I assumed, since she wasn’t nipping at my ankles or barking her brains out. Dakota squeezed me tightly, then pulled back, yanked me up, and kissed me. I gasped at the passion behind it, clutching at the front of his shirt and returning the kiss with my own passion.

I love you. The words were in my mouth, ready to come out. I wanted to bare myself to him, to give him all of me– but something stopped me. Could I leave if he knew? Could I stay if he didn’t love me back? Could I risk it?

We parted, and I gazed up at him, dazed and painfully in love. “I hope you get in,” he said. “I hope you stay.”

I nodded. “Me too,” I murmured. He pressed his lips against mine again, this time fleetingly, before stepping away.

“I’ll see you on Tuesday,” he promised.

“Tuesday.”

When I got into my car, I sighed. Tuesday. Tuesday, everything would be different. I wouldn’t be his lover, I’d be his friend who needed a place to stay for a week. I wouldn’t be able to tell him the truth about my feelings for him. I wouldn’t be able to touch him, kiss him, love him, whenever I wanted to. I’d have to be on guard, permanently. And then, that weekend, I’d have to leave, to go back with my tail between my legs and my head hanging, and spend my life wondering what would have happened if I’d just told him I loved him.

My heart ached for him as I drove away.