Redemption 8

I was hungover again, wearing another thick flannel and a pair of Dakota’s sweatpants, a Powerade in one hand and a ragged stuffed cat in the other, my noise-cancelling headphones on. The waiting room was empty, brightly lit, and warm.

Meg came out and smiled, in that gentle way she had. I forced a slight grin and pulled off my headphones. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” She said. “Hungover again?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Different reasons this time, I guess.”

Her face didn’t change as I followed her to her office and curled up in my usual spot, setting my Powerade on the floor. She opened her notebook to refresh from the previous week, then gestured to my cat. “Who’s this?”

“Robert,” I said. “He’s named after my grandfather. It was his cat, before…” I shrugged.

“It’s sweet that you have him,” she said.

“It was important,” I told her. “I wanted to have him with me forever, and this was a way I could do that.”

She nodded, understanding. “So last week, we agreed to talk about your relationship with Dakota.”

I almost snorted. “Yeah. It’s… interesting.”

“I imagine so.” She set her notebook aside. “Can you explain the dynamic to me?”

I felt my face tighten, not sure if it was anger or confusion or sadness, or some sort of awful combination of the three. “I don’t know.” When Meg opened her mouth to prompt me further, I continued, “I have theories.” She nodded for me to continue. “Dakota… he told me, once, that he loved me. That he’d have chosen me over Alexa if he could. He told me right before I moved in that he hoped I could stay. He told me after we decided to have a sibling relationship that he still felt jealousy thinking of me with another person.” I bit my lip, struggling to keep the confusion and the hurt at bay. “I don’t know why he said those things. Did he say them to manipulate me? I want to think he didn’t. I want to believe he loves me, because with Jackson– the one time I brought him over, which was awful and I don’t want to get into it– Dakota straight up ignored him, and me. He was jealous and he wouldn’t admit it. He had to be, because nothing else makes sense.”

“It’s strange when people aren’t clear about their intentions,” Meg said.

“It’s awful.” I squeezed Robert in my arms and stared into his unseeing blue eyes. “We keep having the same conversation– how do you feel about me, are you sure,– and he constantly insists he’s pushed his feelings more toward familial, before turning all that on its head and confusing me all over.” I took a steadying breath. “It was always a sexual encounter that made me question whether his feelings were platonic or romantic. The things he did when I was upset or overwhelmed– I’ll get there, actually, but even when Alexis still lived with us, when my grandfather and step grandmother died, and the one time I had a meltdown over my grandmother being so sick and my mother being such a bitch– all those times, he took care of me, in a way that could have been a sibling sort of love. Making sure I ate and drank, making sure I was okay, bringing me something to cuddle and whatever. Ernie used to do those things, too, though the something to cuddle was usually just him.”

“So why did you keep having sex with Dakota?”

“Isn’t that just the question of the year?” I snorted. “I want him, in a romantic way, in a sexual way, like I’ve never wanted anyone. Not Jeffrey obviously. Not the boy I dated in high school, or the girls I’ve dated, not Trisha or Jay or Jackson, not even that girl I had a crush on for like ten seconds before my CP that Dakota likes to tease me about.” I sighed. “He makes me feel… I don’t know. I don’t have a clue how to explain it, it doesn’t make sense. I was excited to try sleeping with Jackson, maybe try a relationship, but it turned out halfway through all I could think of was I want Dakota. With Trisha, I had the romantic inclination, my obnoxious desire to be physically affectionate and to feed the people I love, to mother hen them. With Dakota I have that, and this perpetual fear that he hates me for it. I enjoy sex with him because he reads my body language, he knows when to adjust or to stop, he understands. He’s never shamed me for my scars and the pain they cause, or for when I suddenly have an emotional meltdown– which thankfully hasn’t happened for awhile.”

“Did something happen to reinforce those feelings?” Meg said.

I nodded. “It started on Easter Sunday. He came upstairs for something while I was watching Jesus Christ Superstar, which is my tradition– and now I watch the original seventies version on Good Friday and the phenomenal Live one with Sara Bareilles and John Legend on Easter. Anyway Dakota came upstairs and I had joked that he’d promised a kiss to anyone who came to see him in the opening of Mermaid that day at Chance, and he did kiss me, and then– well, things got more heated. I didn’t last long because it hurt, but leading up to the actual sex was… intense. For me. Then we had a couple escapades on the stairs, because his parents weren’t home and he wanted to keep an eye on Myshka and Duchess, and the first time Myshka went ballistic so we didn’t get too far, but he made it astoundingly clear that he was very much still sexually interested in me. He remembered my kinks, even though we hadn’t done much since earlier in the year.”

“And the second time?”

I sighed. “That was one of the two times that I felt like…” I swallowed, my throat closing up. “I felt like we were making love, rather than just having sex.”

 

***

 

He had me by the hair, and by god was I enjoying it. He bit down on my neck, and I raked my nails down his back. My breasts were already swollen and sore from his attention, and I was dangerously close to begging.

Dakota pulled my hand to the front of his basketball shorts, pressing it to the hot, hard length there. I damn near purred. Stepping back, I sat on the stairs and dragged him forward by his waistband, before pulling his shorts down.

His hand fisted harder in my hair, guiding me. He muttered words of encouragement, his voice deep and husky. I took him into my mouth, as deep as I could go,

It went on for a few minutes before he yanked me off of him. I grinned up at him, aroused beyond measure, my vision a little cloudy from lust. His eyes were dark and sharply focused when he suddenly said, “Turn around. On your knees.”

An electric jolt went through me, pulsing between my legs. I obeyed him, my heartbeat racing as he yanked down the shorts I’d been wearing. His hand went to my hair again and pulled as he used his hands to warm me up.

“You’re soaking,” he nearly groaned. It sounded like a compliment. I barely registered what he said, too focused on what his fingers were doing.

When he moved to enter me, it didn’t hurt. I nearly wept with relief, shamelessly moaning.

He started fast, and I flinched. “Wait,” I said, trying to orient myself, not wanting him to stop. “Go slowly.”

Dakota complied, a hand on my waist. I gasped, the pain melting away, pleasure mounting in its place.

He leaned down, his lips on my shoulder, our bodies pressed close together. “Someone likes it slow,” he purred. I nodded, and he kept the same slow, sweet pace.

“Dakota.” His name escaped me before I could stop it.

“Hmm?” He ran his lips across my neck, and I felt like bursting.

I hadn’t meant for him to hear me. “Don’t stop.”

He nearly growled, going just slightly faster, harder. I moaned before I could stop myself, then shoved my nails into my mouth to quiet myself. Dakota pulled my hand away, intertwining it with his own, his lips on my neck as he moved.

God, any more and I would melt into the stairs and never come back up.

 

***

 

“We had to stop because he was shaking too hard,” I said, a smug grin on my face. “I think it freaked him out. I’ve never felt closer to him, emotionally or sexually.”

“It sounds like you had a moment of very clear, healthy communication,” Meg said.

“And that’s so important to me,” I said. “I’ve had it so rarely that I think I put him on a pedestal because of it.”

“Tell me about the second time this connection happened.”

“It was only a few days later.”

 

***

 

We’d been packing Dakota’s office. I wasn’t sure how I ended up against the wall, but there I was, my shirt bunched over my breasts, my shorts and panties on the ground somewhere. Dakota was already warming me up with his hands, and I was all sorts of into it.

He went slowly when he entered me. I braced against the wall to keep myself standing, though my legs were shaking.

“Just relax,” he whispered, reading the tension in my spine, the tightness of my shoulders. I dropped my arms down the wall, giving him a better angle, and breathed deeply, forcing my muscles to relax around him.

Dakota moved slowly, holding my hips. I felt myself tighten around him again, biting my fist to keep from moaning. His parents were just downstairs.

“It’s like you’re milking me,” he all but groaned, and I felt another rush of desire flood through me.

He sped up, and I felt my body tense, the pressure in my shoulders from holding myself up turning rapidly to pain. “Wait–” I breathed, trying to shift, to ease the tightness of my shoulders.

Dakota shifted, wrapping an arm around my chest and pulling me against him. The angle was different, not as painful. Dakota kissed my shoulder and slipped out of me, moving against me instead.

I struggled to speak. “You’re not– you’re not inside me anymore,” I panted.

He laughed, the sound low and strangely erotic. “That desperate to have me inside you?”

“I was enjoying it,” I admitted.

He kissed my neck. “I just want to do this for a minute,” he purred. I nodded, relaxing against him.

 

***

 

“That was the last time it was that… intense,” I said. “There’ve been a couple of other times– I got him off again, he startled me so badly I thought his parents were coming upstairs and literally ran to the other side of the room. Then I was so confused I didn’t know how to respond at all. Not my most romantic moment.”

Meg outright laughed at that. “You didn’t realize what was happening?”

“He’s so damn quiet,” I said. “He has no tells. All I noticed was he was breathing a little harder than usual, then–” I made a hand gesture that explained the rest of that statement. Meg chuckled again.

“That’s fair.”

“Though that time, and the time after that, he tore my scar tissue,” I admitted. “I started spotting and thought it was my period, but then I remembered my birth control is supposed to stop that, and I hadn’t been spotting otherwise– only immediately after having sex.”

“Oh, that’s scary,” Meg said. “Did you tell him?”

“Hell no.” I put a hand to my chest. “If I tell him stuff like that, he’d probably stop sleeping with me.”

“Wouldn’t that… fix the problem?” Meg prompted.

“I don’t want to stop sleeping with him,” I insisted. “I want him to pursue me the way he did before his breakup with Alexis. I want him to love me.” The root of the fucking problem, I realized, suddenly. “He takes advantage of my feelings for him– and I don’t know if he even realizes he’s doing it. I’m always his fallback, or at least he’s treating me that way–”

“Stop trying to give him the benefit of the doubt and let yourself be angry with him,” Meg ordered.

I swallowed my guilt– and my tears– took a deep breath, and continued. “I’m not his sister anymore. I’m his weird roommate who he fucks when he doesn’t have any other options, which is often right now. He knows that I won’t say no, because he knows I still have a romantic attachment to him. I hate that, and I hate myself for letting him do that, and for believing that maybe he’ll change his mind. He said he didn’t want another long term relationship until we’re in the new house, and that he wanted to be siblings with me because his parents wanted to adopt me. He said he was scared to live with his romantic partner after Alexis. Well, new house, check. Adoption, not a problem anymore. He doesn’t want kids and that’s the only thing stopping me from writing him a damn thesis on why we should be together. I get that my feelings are my responsibility, he shouldn’t have to take responsibility for them, but honestly, fuck that. My feelings would have faded for him if he’d stopped dragging me in sexually, and that’s something I literally can’t seem to help myself from wanting. And he wouldn’t do it if he wasn’t still interested on some level beyond familial affection.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

I looked Meg in the eye, heat and anger making my face red, making my chest tight. “I’m gonna tell him what I think, that’s what. I’m going to demand answers for why he said what he said, why he does what he does. I’m going to lay it out and demand more than the usual shrug and placating bullshit. I want fucking answers.

Advertisements

Redemption 7

“Welcome back,” Meg said, smoothing her slacks as she sat down. I took up my usual seat, folding in on myself. “I see you’re wearing sweatpants.”

“Yeah.” I picked at a piece of fuzz on them. They were black and soft, almost as soft as the flannel shirt I was wearing with them.

“Not feeling well?”

“Just tired—“ wait, this was my therapist, why was I sugarcoating? “And a little hungover. It’s been a rough week.”

“Want to start there? We can come back to Myshka another time—“

“To be honest,” I interrupted, “it all plays in. Telling everything in order helps.”

“In that case,” Meg said, unruffled by me interrupting her, “tell me about that.”

“So, we had Duchess already when I moved in— officially, you know— and she’s old, so she’s low maintenance.”

“A puppy is very much not,” Meg agreed. “Especially a pomsky.”

“Ugh, she’s so energetic. And so much bigger than we expected.” I shrugged. “At any rate, it took me forever to figure out why I resented her so much…”

Myshka, at first, was a hassle, but a delight. She was a distraction from my being fired, the break up, even the stress of Christmas around the corner. It wasn’t until she became my responsibility that I started to hate her.

“I was always home,” I said, “except the few days when I went to my second job, the other sewing one— my only job, at that point.”

“Is that the one—“

“That I got through Collin?” Had I even mentioned that in my previous sessions? I couldn’t remember. “Yeah, I still have it. Fourteen bucks an hour, part time. I was still a temp then so I didn’t have reliable hours.”

“Right,” Meg said. “Now that’s your sewing job and Chance is your costuming job.”

“Yes.”

“So with Myshka,” Meg said, circling back to the matter at hand. “This sounds a lot like when you were with Jeffrey.”

I sighed. “Yes, exactly. It was exactly like when I was with Jeffrey. I didn’t remember at the time— you know, the power of repression and all that— but yes, the fact that suddenly this animal that wasn’t mine was my responsibility, and the probably-unrooted fear that they would hate me if I wasn’t pulling more weight than they were in regards to her…”

“Because your mom and Jeffrey did that to you, ongoing, until he left.”

And oh, god, how validating to have someone who remembered that, made that connection, really understood how that fucked me up. “Dakota and I had a huge fight about it.”

“You felt taken advantage of.”

“Nina was insisting the whole family was taking advantage of me,” I said. “I called her crying because I was so overwhelmed— one of those puppy disasters that’s probably normal but was too much for me, apparently, because I’m a weak bitch or some shit. Nina and I were supposed to go swing dancing and I came home to get dressed, and Myshka was in her kennel losing her mind because she’d made a spectacular mess of herself and her cage, and I just had a full on meltdown.”

Not my happiest moment. Nina insisted I put my foot down, leave Myshka for Dakota or his parents to deal with, and come dance. I’d done exactly that, praying that Bella and Henry wouldn’t guilt me about it, or yell at me (they hadn’t).

“And the fight with Dakota…?” Meg prompted.

I sighed. “I dropped Myshka in his lap and demanded to know whose dog, and therefore whose responsibility, she was. I told him he’d made a mistake getting her at Christmas when he was in every show at Chance, gone for almost fourteen hours a day. I told him Bella was pulling most of the weight regarding Myshka and told him to get it together. We promptly didn’t speak for a month, as much as possible.”

Meg frowned. “You started your new job around that time.”

I nodded. “It was wonderful being back. Exactly like when I’d worked there before, stuck in the storage room full of costumes, breaking down Christmas and preparing for spring stuff. I loved it, I saw so many people I’d known from my internship. They were delighted to have me back.” I started to play with the edge of my sleeve. “Bella and Henry, though… I think Dakota talked to them— Bella, at the very least— and told them about our fight. They started… well, not ignoring me, exactly.”

“Treating you like a roommate,” Meg supplied.

“Ugh, you sound like Nina. But yes. It stung, going from ‘oh she’s our new daughter! We’re adopting her!’ To never talking to them at all.” So badly, in fact, that my emotional stability had tanked even further, but Meg already knew about that. “Weirdly, it was Nina’s ex, Jackson— what is it with me and J names?— who was the turning point for Dakota and me.”

 

***

 

Jackson reached out to me when Nina dumped him— in her melodramatic, selfish way—and asked me to hang out. Hanging out rapidly became making out, which turned into— well, Dakota had previously been the only man who could claim he’d seen me naked and eager. Too bad Jackson was, legitimately, a terrible lover.

The anxiety attack hit the moment I woke up in Jackson’s bed. I silently dressed before waking him up and telling him I had to go to work, then snuck away and drove home at nearly twenty over the speed limit.

Emma called before I’d even left Jackson’s complex.

“What happened?” She demanded.

“It was going fine,” I said, my voice trembling. “Everything was fine, I was finally with someone other than Dakota, and the second we got started on the serious shit, all I could think was I want Dakota!” My fury rang out in my tiny car, echoing off the glass. “I’m so tired of wanting someone who doesn’t want me! Or only wants me as his fallback, or whatever the fuck.”

“I’m sorry,” Emma said, listening patiently. I got to the highway and floored it, early enough that the road was still mostly empty.

“It’s not fair,” I snapped. “How come he gets to move on and I get hung up? I’m actively trying to be interested in other people. He’s just… him.”

“That… okay,” Emma said. I’d apparently lost her, but I was too frustrated to backtrack and explain myself better.

“Jackson handled me beautifully,” I continued. “I freaked out and he stopped, he was really patient.”

“That’s good.”

“No!”

“It’s… not good?”

“He was everything sweet and kind and I was still not into it! At all!”

“Oof,” Emma said. “That’s…”

“Unfair,” I supplied.

“You know, I was gonna try for another word, but yeah, that’s actually really unfair.”

I huffed. “This is bullshit. My feelings for Dakota are bullshit. Everything right now is bullshit.”

“Honey, keep texting me today,” Emma interrupted, “but I’m at work. I love you!”

“I love you too, Em,” I said. “Have a good day at work.”

Dakota was waiting when I got home, tactfully not mentioning my walk of shame in the same outfit from the night before. I walked in frantic and shaking.

Without preamble, I wrapped my arms around him. He seemed to hesitate, then sensed I needed grounding and wrapped his arms around me. We stayed that way for a moment before I backed out of his arms, steadier— then frustrated at being steadier, which was ridiculous. Which I told myself.

“How was your night?” He asked. I snorted.

“It was bullshit.” After greeting Myshka, who, at four months, was already twice the size of Duchess, I looked around to see if Bella was downstairs. She wasn’t. “No one measures up to you,” I told him plainly. He shrugged. I opened by mouth to say more, but heard Duchess and Bella coming down the stairs and changed topic. “I’m going to shower.”

The day passed slowly, achingly slowly, as I dragged myself through the underground of Chance. Christmas was over, spring was incoming, and costumes were being transferred and rearranged for the new show, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which was in rehearsals and set to debut in the spring season. By the time I got home, all I wanted to do was sleep— but that wasn’t my lot, apparently.

Bella was out for the evening, picking up Henry from the airport. The moment she closed the front door, Dakota texted me to come down and talk with him.

“What’s up?” I asked, walking into the kitchen. I reached down to fend off Myshka as she leapt up to greet me, in a vain attempt to train her not to jump.

“Just thought you’d wanna talk,” he said, leaning against Henry’s desk and crossing his ankles.

“About what?” I sat on one of the stools by the kitchen island. “I had some really bad sex with a guy and it turns out, despite my several scattered attempts, I’m not over you. What else is there to it?” I scowled. “It’s not fair, honestly. How the hell did you manage to switch your feelings from potentially romantic to this is my sister?

He shrugged. “I forced myself to. When we decided we were going to be siblings, after Mom said she’d adopt you.”

We’d had this conversation a million times, it seemed. Me wondering how he felt because he never showed anything, him insisting it was platonic and then turning around and making things between us sexual again. It was confusing and infuriating, and every time I thought I’d moved on romantically, I’d get swept up in thinking he might be interested again.

“Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if—“ I stopped, and looked down. I hated looking into his face when we talked— not because of what I could read in his face, but because I could never read anything in his face. Yet he could read me like a flashing neon sign.

“If we’d decided to go romantic instead of toward being siblings?” He finished for me. I nodded. He shrugged.

Conversation over, I decided. “What about you, Dakota?” I asked. “We never talk anymore.”

He shrugged. “I’m still mad at you about Myshka.”

I blinked, my mind blank. Then, for God only knew what reason, my chest became tight with excitement, my heart fluttering. He actually just admitted to being angry.

“Some of the things you said the day we talked—“ and by this I assumed he meant the day I dropped Myshka on his lap and told him to take responsibility for his puppy— “were wrong. I spent a good two weeks being angry at you, and every time I saw you near her, all I could think was get away from my dog.

Elation was probably the wrong response to Dakota telling me he was angry with me, but considering he never told me anything he felt, I couldn’t muster up the energy to feel guilty. “I’m sorry I upset you so badly,” I said. “I felt taken advantage of and I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

“I assumed you wanted to be part of the family.” Dakota shrugged. “Family helps family, no matter what.”

No, I thought, remembering my own family, the people who had abandoned me over and over again throughout my life. No, they don’t.

Rather than say that, I nodded. “I get that. It’s an adjustment I’m struggling to make. Your parents are so different than mine.”

Dakota shrugged, and I figured that was all I’d get from him.

 

***

 

“So yeah, I’m the queen of having the absolute wrong response in every situation. Yay.” I shrugged. “It was all… a lot, at the time. It turned out Bella didn’t want to adopt me after all, but I can come back to that later.” I glanced at the time, seeing that it was rapidly coming to a close. “Yeah, let’s sort that out another time.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Meg said. “Maybe next week we can focus more on Dakota and your relationship with him?”

I hummed in agreement.

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.”

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.”