Survivor’s Diaries: Chapter 21

The sunlight was beating down on my face as we hiked the snow capped mountains of Jesse’s favorite national park. The wind was blowing through my hair with so much force I had to redo my french braid three times. On the whole, trekking an icy forest in the dead of winter and middle of day with the morning sun directly overhead brought with it a whole cluster of sensations for me with which I was unfamiliar.

I was hot, but cold.

Freezing, but sweating.

Numb, but sunburned.

All in all, not the most comfortable experience.

The idea of laying on a beach or snorkeling in Hawaii was becoming more and more appealing by the second. I kicked myself internally for not just going along with the original plan.

As we trudged, I pushed myself to the brink of exhaustion to keep pace with Jesse, and yet, I could still tell I was still slowing him down. In a few moments of frustration I was tempted to remind him that my legs weren’t ten feet long and this was harder for me, but didn’t want him to think I was so faint of heart, and refrained.

Out of all the excuses I tried to use to get out doing this, I didn’t think of the one that was actually true — I simply didn’t have the stamina for it. I was dog tired less than an hour into the hike.

The whole time Jesse was watching me out of the corner of his eye like a hawk, waiting for me to trip up or reveal some semblance of the reason I made such a fit against going. But his efforts would be in vain, at least until sundown, when it got dark. The only thing I was worried about at this point were the fatigue, exhaustion, and elements.

At one point I called him on it. “Jesse, you keep looking at me like I’m going to spontaneously combust.”

He laughed, sped up, and turned around so he could face me walking backwards. “If you would just tell me the real reason why you were so against doing this I’ll stop doing that.”

I sighed in exasperation. “Look around. It’s freezing cold, scorching hot, and soaking wet at the same time. We are being both frozen and burned alive as we speak.”

He bit his lip. “No, that’s not it. There’s something else.”

I glared. “You’re never going to let this go, are you?”

He laughed. “No. You’re going to tell me or I’m going to find out, one way or the other.” Then he leaned in and kissed me on the lips.

I flushed scarlet and swooned. With the addition of the fatigue and the wind, this kiss had made me more disoriented and unbalanced than usual.

I could tell he noticed because he chuckled and steadied me before turning back around.

The color in my face flushed even deeper. I sighed, wondering if I had even an inkling of the effect on him as he had on me.

Not likely.

I gazed wistfully at him as we trekked.

Being tall, slender, and graceful, Jesse looked athletic and professional in his winter gear, aesthetic and male-modelesque, as if the apparel was tailor made for him.

I on the other hand looked nothing so appealing.

The opposite — I looked like a marshmallow.

The smallest sizes of women’s snow gear at REI were way too big for me, so big that I even ventured into the children’s section to look for alternatives, much to Jesse’s amusement. Unfortunately those didn’t work out either, being to short lengthwise, so after several trips to the dressing room, I just settled for wearing an adult women’s “extra small” that swallowed me whole.

Meanwhile, in his set, Jesse looked like a full blown male model, exactly like the professional snowboarders on all the posters lining the walls.

Hence the wistful gaze.

As we walked, he was his usual sunny, carefree self, telling funny stories, doing impressions, and making me laugh, which made the all the discomfort worthwhile. Stamina wise, he was far more resilient than I, not seeming to mind at all the brutal conditions or the heavy reinforcements on his back. Outgoing and extroverted as he was, he was even conversing and exchanging advice with the other hikers we passed, while I, shy, awkward, and inept, remained quiet as a mouse in the background.

I had fallen several times — more times than I could count — on my knees. The pulse of blood beneath the burgeoning bruises made this trek even more difficult.

I wasn’t athletic at all.

For the record, my only possible claim to athleticism lied in a brief cheerleading stint in high school (two years), and to be clear — I had no actual talent. I didn’t even audition. The cheer coach approached me at school and asked me to join, as the team was short a flyer and I looked smaller and lighter (89 pounds) than anyone on the roster or tryout list. Hence, the only value I brought to the program was my weight, or lack thereof. Of course, this fleeting dalliance ended when I fell off the top of the pyramid (during a football game) and shattered my rib cage, sidelining me from the sport (and all sports) permanently.

Light as I was, I was still uncoordinated and clumsy. The only thing I was really ever good at was getting hurt or seriously injured.

Hence the bruised knees.

Jesse, for his part, was having a blast — he was made for this kind of exciting, wilderness trip — tall, powerfully built, spatially intelligent, physically and mentally resilient, brave, agile, adventure-seeking.

I on the other hand, was none of those things.

In fact, I was the opposite of those things.

Small, weak, clumsy, awkward, uncoordinated, afraid of everything, and bad with directions.

And I was struggling.

The freezing temperatures and blinding sunlight were contributing factors but the real problem was the weight on my back. My pack was digging into my shoulders so hard I could feel the bruises already forming. This was despite the fact that I made a concerted effort to pack light and Jesse was carrying 85% of our collective load.

In his defense he offered to carry my pack several times but I didn’t want to give him yet another opportunity to make jest of my pathetic lack of stamina and general ineptitude so I declined.

After a while though it became hard. At one point I whimpered audibly as I adjusted my straps. These welts on my shoulders were going to be nasty. I couldn’t go on like this much longer.

Jesse heard my wheezes and whipped his head back. “Are you okay? Do you want to take a break?” he asked, concern in his voice.

I squinted through the blinding rays of the sunlight.

“Jesse, I — I don’t think I can walk any further today. I’m sorry,” I panted shamefully, looking down, shivering from the cold.

He appraised my haggard appearance, stifled a smile, then nodded seriously. “Yeah, yeah, let’s stop and set up camp at the nearest site, no more hiking until tomorrow.”

I nodded, grateful, then took a generous swig of water.

When I looked back up, he was biting his lip, like he was trying not to laugh.

“What?” I asked, annoyed.

A laugh finally escaped his lips. “I’m sorry, Fiona, I just — I just think I pushed you too hard today, you look like you are about to pass out or something.”

I glared, unamused. “I told you I was no good at this. You were the one who wanted to take the scenic route.”

Jesse laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, that was my mistake, I knew you were a lightweight but I didn’t know it would be like. . .this bad.”

I hissed and stomped past him. He chuckled and pulled out his map.

I found a rock to sit on and folded my arms across my chest. I didn’t know who I was more frustrated with, him or me. Me, because despite my herculean efforts to tough out the hike, I hadn’t fooled him in the slightest. Him, because he found my frailty amusing and because he was just so perfect that he made everything I did look so utterly imperfect by comparison.

But when I turned around to face him, all the irritation melted away.

The sunlight was no longer blinding me and I could see him clearly.

Jesse’s long, crow black hair was breathtaking against the bright white sky, so striking I’m sure it could have been seen from miles away, like a raven in a snowstorm. It was the jet of ink against the white of ice. His perfect, double fringe of lashes were thick like wreaths, and his skin was smooth, pale, resplendent — like the soft down of fresh snow.

He was too beautiful. It wasn’t fair.

My eyes narrowed enviously.

I was sure I didn’t look like anything resembling beauty right now in these conditions.

On the contrary, I hazarded to imagine what my hair looked like what with the wind and sleet blowing through it for the last several hours. Instinctively, I reached back, uncoiled my falling apart french braid, and re plaited it as tightly as I could.

Jesse walked over to me with the map.

“We can cross over here — ,” he stated, pointing to a convoluted tangle of branches on the page, “ — turn left at this fork, and set up camp here.”

I nodded like I understood everything he just said.

He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and laughed. Clearly I hadn’t fooled him. “I’ll lead the way.”

I moaned as I heaved my pack off the ground.

“Do you want me to carry you?” Jesse asked, grinning.

I glared. “No, I think I can make it the rest of the way all by myself.”

He laughed but took my pack. At this point, I couldn’t protest.

After a grueling (well, grueling for me) half hour of uphill hiking, we landed at the nearest camp site, where, thankfully, there were other campers. I sighed a breath of relief. I was glad we weren’t alone. The idea of being lost in a freezing atmosphere like this was one of my greatest fears as a warm blooded mammal.

Jesse got to work right away building our makeshift shelter.

I was no help.

In my defense, I offered. “Can I do anything?” I asked as he toiled.

He just laughed. “No, I think you’ll just hurt yourself trying.”

My eyes narrowed. Very funny.

Like I couldn’t help with a simple task without finding away to injure myself in the process. He really thought I was that much of a danger to my own body.

I had to admit thought, as I watched from the sidelines, I was impressed with his handiwork. He really didn’t need my or anyone’s help at all. The tent slowly but surely erected itself before my eyes without a hitch.

To at least appear useful, I tried starting a fire in one of the nearby pits — unsuccessfully of course, to no avail. Instead I just burned the tips of my fingers with the lighter.

“Fiona, hand me the tarp and the floor cover?” Jesse called from inside the tent.

“Are you sure?” I replied sourly. “Wouldn’t want to hurt myself trying to help.”

He just laughed.

I walked over to the giant stash of reinforcements, pulled out what I hoped were the correct items, and tossed them inside.

“Are those what you wanted?” I asked warily. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure.

“Yes,” Jesse chuckled.

After a few more minutes of him working and me watching, he emerged. “Done.”

I ran over and threw my arms around him. “Look at you, all by yourself with no help.”

He laughed, wrapping his hands around my waist. “Yeah, how are you going to repay me for it?”

I smiled, took his hand, and pulled him inside the tent.

“There you go again with that book,” Jesse teased lightly, rubbing his eyes.

I jumped a little.

I hadn’t realized he’d woken. “Oh, hey,” I muttered. “I thought you were asleep.”

Right now we were laying next to each other inside our shared sleeping bag, tangled in a sea of blankets. It was late in the evening and Jesse was rousing from his slumber.

Besides being at least as physically exhausted as he, if not more, I was forcing myself awake, not yet ready to succumb to the depths of unconsciousness. It was unclear what awaited me there.

He reached over and took the book from my hands.

“Hey,” I protested, my heart accelerating, lunging for it. Jesse smiled and fended off my advance with ease.

I pouted but surrendered.

He flipped through the pages as I watched anxiously.

Truthfully, I didn’t want Jesse to understand my attraction to this novel, why I read it so many times. It was a very, very dark story. I only ever pulled it out when I thought he was asleep.

The Lovely Bones,” he read the title aloud, stretching out the syllables.

He exhaled. “Fiona, how many times have you read this book?”

All the lightheartedness was now gone from his voice.

“It’s not important.”

“Seriously, how many times?” he pressed, not lifting his gaze from the cover.

There was no point in asking or answering this question. The condition of the book said it all. The front cover was battered, the spine was falling apart, and most of the pages were detached from the seams.

I thought about it before replying. “The honest answer is I don’t know.”

Jesse sighed impatiently. “More than ten times?”

I pursed my lips.

Way more than that.

“More than thirty?” he pressed.

“I — I don’t know — ”

“Fiona you literally never tell me anything will you at least tell me this?” Jesse demanded loudly, suddenly angry.

I flinched and shrunk backwards. I didn’t like it when Jesse interrogated me in this way.

When he saw my reaction he closed his eyes and sighed, all the vexation melting away.

Fire became ice and anger became remorse, instantly.

It was like pulling away a mask.

“I’m sorry, little Fi’,” he apologized, reaching for my jaw.

He wound his hands through my hair and pulled me into a kiss.

For a moment, time stood still.

“It’s okay,” I breathed as we broke away, returning to reality.

He took the novel, skimmed through all the pages again like an accordion and handed it back to me. “It’s such a sad book,” he frowned.

Yes.

He didn’t understand.

I didn’t expect him to.

“Yeah,” I muttered in agreement, tucking it away in my bag, hoping he would just move on to another subject.

Jesse reached for my jaw and pulled me toward him. “Honestly though,” he continued, forcing my gaze. “Why do you read it over and over?” His eyes were alight with curiosity, vivid with real interest, trying arduously to understand the convoluted workings of my mind. “What is it that appeals to you?”

I looked at him uneasily. A large lump rose in my throat. I tried to clear the obstruction.

“Um,” I started unsurely.

Jesse watched intently.

I tried to sanitize it. “I like the concept of heaven” I stumbled over the words, “the idea of a sentient afterlife.”

The whole thing sounded wrong coming out of my mouth. Because it wasn’t true. It was a complete lie. Sentience beyond the grave was the last thing I would have ever asked for. My one theological desire was a respite from sentience, not an eternity of it. That is what made the pull towards death and non existence so appealing for a maimed and defiled creature like me — the absence of being able to feel anything, including and especially pain, even if it meant not feeling anything at all. The opposite — the full sentience of mortality, for eternity — would be complete torture.

I shuddered at the thought.

But normal people like that kind of fluffy, gooey, heaven stuff right?

I tried to remember what it was like to be normal.

He squinted suspiciously. “Are you sure that’s why?”

“Yes,” I wrapped my voice around the word as convincingly as I could. The rate of my heart belied the veracity of the answer.

A long pause.

He smiled wryly. “Fiona, have you ever noticed that whenever you lie, you start braiding your hair?”

I froze and looked down.

I hadn’t even noticed, but in my hand hanging over my shoulder was a perfectly twined inside out braid.

When I looked back up, his expression was pained. Hurt.

Oh no.

I flushed scarlet. The waves of guilt wracked over me in droves.

He went on, calmly. “You did the same thing when I was trying to get you to tell me why you didn’t want to go camping. You do it all the time.”

I could feel the heat rising to my face. “I — I’m sorry. . .”

I didn’t know what else to say.

Jesse sighed and pulled me into his embrace. “I’m not angry, love. I just wonder why you won’t tell me what happened to you. Whatever it is, I’m never going to leave you, I love you.”

The guilt I felt before amplified by a factor of ten. My vision started to fog up. Jesse was more than I deserved. I nodded as he rubbed my naked back.

“Maybe, soon. . .” I trailed off, not knowing where I was going with it. I didn’t want to make a promise I couldn’t keep.

He chuckled and kissed me on the top of the head. I disentangled myself to go put some clothes on.

The cold temperature of the mountains assailed me as I left his side, now completely naked inside the tent. For the hundredth time, I chastised myself for not going along with the original Hawaii plan. I was grateful Jesse brought a heating generator, seeing as I couldn’t bring my electric blanket, but my feet were still freezing. I tore apart my bag looking for my fuzzy socks.

I could feel his eyes on me as I dressed.

“Jesus, Fiona those bruises look bad.”

I looked down. The dark splotches on my knees were now full blown welts. Purple, raised, and bloody beneath the surface. Spooky looking. The ones on my shoulders were even worse.

I was used to it.

“Oh,” I remarked, feigning surprise, then shrugged. “Yeah, I fell pretty hard, I guess.”

Jesse stared at me incredulously. He was clearly shocked by my level of nonchalance. “Have you ever thought about seeing like . . . a doctor about this? Even when I barely touch you or grab you these kinds of bruises happen. Not this bad, but still. . .”

I sighed.

Then, in a dead voice, with no real emotion, I replied, “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll do that.”

Not.

I learned a long time ago that, in life, the best way to get someone off your back was to just agree with what they were pressuring you to do and then do whatever you were originally planning to do (or not do) later. Acquiesce verbally and then proceed with the original course of action. Most of the time, I have found that the person will just forget. Arguing, on the other hand, will ensure that they remember.

There was a long pause.

I looked over.

Jesse’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Oh no.

Not that look.

I turned away and shuffled through my pack.

“Fiona, how often do you get away with like completely bullshitting people?” he asked tartly.

I turned around, wide eyed.

Jesse’s expression was acidic, stone cold. He looked so serious I don’t know why but it made me laugh.

I tried to make light.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied in a sarcastic, sugar sweet voice, feigning innocence.

He glared, and the venom started to flow. “I’m serious. You think I don’t notice but I do, I can tell when you’re like totally trying to pull the wool over my eyes, you do it all the time, most of the time I just let it go, but I still see it. ”

I bit my lip, trying not to laugh. I supposed all of this was true.

He just kept going, his tone sharp. “I’m not a complete idiot, Fiona, I went to law school, I’m a lawyer, I make a lot of money, I think I can tell when someone’s just completely trying to pull a fast one on m — ”

“Look,” I laughed. “I’m sorry, Jesse. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Then I crawled towards him, flashed a dazzling smile, and kissed him on the cheek.

“I really am sorry.” I even batted my eyelashes.

Second rule. Apologizing — the fastest way to pacify an angry person. All their fire just melts away instantly.

But this time it wasn’t working. Jesse still looked miffed as I pulled away.

I frowned.

“Come on, don’t be mad,” I insisted, combing his hair back.

He sighed. “I’m not mad.”

He was mad.

“Please,” I whispered. “What can I do. . .?” I trailed off aimlessly. “Anything you want. . .”

“Anything?” he confirmed.

“Within reason,” I replied warily. Spilling my deepest darkest secrets wasn’t on the table.

A long pause.

He seemed deep in thought.

Suddenly his head snapped up. On his face was a mischievous smile that I immediately distrusted.

“I have an idea. Want to do something fun?”

Fun?

“That depends on what it is,” I sighed. I was not one for thrill seeking, and knew that was one of Jesse’s crazy obsessions.

“There’s a spot not far from here we passed when we were walking up, some hikers told me about it, it’s a great place to watch the stars. Let’s go pick up a bottle of wine from the rest stop and check it out.”

“Oh,” I remarked, surprised. That seemed. . . so tame. Not at all what I had been expecting from the sly smile on his face.

Still, I hesitated.

Going outside into the wilderness at this time of night was a deal breaker for me for obvious reasons. It was the true, single, real reason why I made such a fuss about going on this trip, the forbidden reason that Jesse did not know about — and I was determined to keep it that way.

This was a bad idea.

I couldn’t agree to it.

But, in that moment, I didn’t want to deny Jesse, not after I had just offended him, if even ever so slightly. It didn’t make any sense but the urge I felt to please him felt stronger than the urge to follow all the rules I set for myself, even though that was so important too.

“Please, Fiona. Please. . .” he begged, reaching for my hands, his eyes alight with youthful excitement.

I sighed, feeling my resolve yield.

“Do you know how hard it is to deny you when you plead with me like this?” I whispered, so quietly for a moment that I wondered if I even said it aloud at all.

But once I did, I wanted to cut my tongue out.

I didn’t want Jesse to know he had this power over me.

“Then don’t say no,” he pleaded shamelessly. “Please. Please.”

Jesse picked up my hand and started kissing my fingers.

I sighed, folding, and Jesse grinned, knowing he had won.

I supposed I could keep it together for an hour or so. If it made him happy and forget why he was mad at me, I supposed I could take the risk. This excursion would also put off my going to sleep, which I wasn’t looking forward to and had been trying to delay already.

“Okay,” I smiled weakly, relenting.

He beamed and grabbed my hand. “Let’s go.”

We got dressed again, stopped by the all hours rest stop for the wine, and made the hike.

Thankfully, Jesse was right about the distance, it was close. The trail was also smooth and flat, so I didn’t have to worry about stumbling and adding to the already vivid bouquet of bruises dotting my body.

But more urgently, as expected, the darkness and wilderness of the surrounding scene was pricking viciously at old wounds, and it took great effort to keep the past at bay. I threw my arms around my torso as tightly as I could as we walked, so much so that it hurt (thankfully, in the pitch blackness, that didn’t look so weird), and tried to block out as much as I could.

It wasn’t easy.

The memories were feeding off this environment, stalking my consciousness.

Even a couple years ago I would not have been able to do something like this. The pain was still there, deep down, I could feel it, close enough to touch. I knew that the slightest misstep could cause it to explode. And once that happened, there would be nothing I could do. Without warning, I would collapse to the ground and start gasping for air like a dying animal.

Jesse was in the middle of an intense work story right now, but I wasn’t listening. He might have well not have been talking at all, because his lovely, musical voice was so deep in the recesses of my mind I could not hear it. I felt guilty, but knew it was more important that I held it all together for him.

It was a new moon tonight, just like that night. The flora was overgrown and the ground was flat, just like in the Midwest. I was dog tired and panting now, just like I was then.

Before I could help it, the connections began to form.

I saw it in my head.

I heard the quick gasp, gasp, gasp of air dragging through my lips, but I could not stop it.

This was a bad idea.

Agreeing to this was a mistake.

Yes, it was a mistake.

But it was too late for regrets now. All I could do at this point was try to find a way out of it.

I tightened my vice like grip on my torso.

It wasn’t working.

Fuck.

Reflexively, I unclasped myself and repositioned the vice underneath my clothes, so my arms and hands were touching my bare skin.

A quick warning sign flashed in my brain.

I wasn’t supposed to do this. It was against the rules.

A pause.

Last chance.

Do you really have to do this, Fiona?

A pause.

Jesse’s face filled my mind.

Then a sigh, because with that, the decision had already been made.

Before I could stop myself, I braced — and dug my nails into my ribs as deep and hard as they would go.

I gasped as my skin broke open in ten different places across my chest. My hands and nails became weapons, two quintets of needles, shredding silk. The cuts burned and the nerves in my skin were screaming at me to stop, but I did not let up.

I continued to draw blood.

My eyes filled with tears.

It really hurt. It really hurt.

But it was working.

The desired effect was slowly being realized. The shallow physical pain was replacing the much deeper emotional one. The memories slowly faded to black, one by one. All I could think about was these blistering cuts, this simple pain and nothing else.

I pressed my nails harder, as hard as I could, until I was sure my skin would bruise from the sheer pressure.

Seconds passed. . . Minutes. . .

I sighed a breath of relief. Finally, the evil was back in its coffer.

My well worn strategy was a success, yet again. . . I wasn’t proud of it, barbaric as I was sure it would seem to anyone on the outside, who didn’t understand.

But it was effective. I used to do it a lot more often, truth be told. The scars on my rib cage were soft and white, but they were there, making the skin beneath them soft and easy to tear.

When I knew we were going on this trip, I made an unconscious decision not to trim my nails, let them grow out for weeks in case I needed them for an emergency like this.

Still, the future consequences of my act loomed.

Did we bring bandaids? The cotton of one of my tee shirts would work well enough I supposed. . .

More importantly, Jesse would surely see these injuries the next time we bathed or had sex. He would demand to know where I got them. Internal sigh. That was another cross examination I would have to prepare for.

I would just have to deal with that later.

Make up some excuse.

Although Jesse seemed to be on to my little white lies. .judging by the ire of our most recent argument. I couldn’t just bullshit him or pull the wool over his eyes like I usually did. I would have to think of a really creative explanation for where I got these injuries. . .

I sighed.

The primary obstacle had been conquered — that was the important thing.

Thankfully, he didn’t seem to notice anything strange had just happened; although he was always good at hiding stuff like that.

I wiped the blood on my dark clothes, thankful for the shroud of nightfall at this moment, and threw myself back into the conversation with Jesse with full energy now.

I mirrored his emotions, laughed at the proper intervals, interrupted to ask for more information when it was called for, and otherwise embodied the perfect conversationalist. It wasn’t hard. I loved listening to Jesse. This was my favorite thing to do. Literally.

Still, I had to admit, it was hard to pay full attention — I was still recovering mentally and physically from the intensity of what I just had to do and psychologically dealing with the horror of how close I had just came moments ago to completely falling a part in front of him, to hitting the ground and gasping for air.

Like an elk or some type of game animal might if they had been shot in the neck with a Beretta A400.

After fifteen minutes, we arrived at the desired location, a small leafy nook at the end of the trail carved out by a thick crest of trees.

Jesse held the branches out of the way for me as we stepped in. Once inside, I immediately unzipped his pack from behind and pulled out the blankets.

“This is amazing,” he remarked in awe.

I laid the quilts down on the ground and spread them out on my hands and knees. “Yeah, ” I responded dully. “Nice and quiet.”

Jesse sighed in exasperation. “I meant the stars, Fiona.”

The heat rose to my face. I whipped my head around.

First, I saw Jesse rolling his eyes; then, I saw the object to which he was referring. A diamond studded night sky, bursting with constellations.

Oh.

I hadn’t even noticed it.

“Sorry,” I muttered.

He rolled his eyes again. “Come here.”

I crawled into the mold of his embrace, still red faced.

“Your mind is somewhere else,” he commented, stroking my hair.

My heart accelerated. “No it’s not. Where else would it be?”

He shrugged. “You tell me.”

I didn’t answer. I just hoped this train of thought would die on its own.

Jesse uncapped the wine and set out two plastic cups. “I think you need something to help you relax.”

My heart raced. “No, Jesse, I don’t want any, that was for you, not for me — ” I protested.

He knew I rarely ever touched alcohol.

“It’s for the both of us.”

No.

I couldn’t agree to that. I would get wasted. There was a no way around that. And I didn’t want to get drunk tonight. Or any night.

“Jesse, no, I can’t — ”

“Come on,” he pressed, pouring the cups. “It will be fine.”

I pursed my lips. “No, Jesse, I really think that’s a bad idea — ”

“It’s not a big deal — ”

“Jesse I don’t want to — ”

“Fiona!” he rebuked sharply — so sharply it made me jump — , “you need to lighten up — relax! You’re always so tense, guarded, uptight. Have a drink for once just loosen up, fuck.”

His eyes were black and his expression mean.

I froze, shocked. The color drained from my face.

His words hit me like the lash of a whip. Jesse has never spoken to me this way. My face fell as I slowly processed the words. . .

Moisture filled my eyes. A lump rose in my throat. Soon, I could taste the salt water in my mouth.

A long bout of silence passed as the emotions hit, wave by wave.

“Fiona?” Jesse asked tentatively, all traces of hostility gone from his voice, his tone anxious and unsure.

For once, I was grateful for the darkness tonight.

The tears flowed down my face in two thick cascades and I could not stop them. I tried to control the sound of my breathing, which if heard, would give me away.

I didn’t even know why I started crying. What he said wasn’t even that bad. I think it was the way he said them, the tone, that triggered the tears.

“Darling?” he probed again softly.

Without thinking, I inhaled through my nose, producing an audible sniffle.

I cursed myself for the mistake.

Jesse’s voice was anxious now. “Are you crying, Fi’?”

I didn’t answer for a while. I just breathed in and out through my mouth to hide the sounds of the sobs.

“No,” I lied, but my voice cracked, betraying me.

He pulled my face toward him, I assumed to examine for himself. I tried to resist, but his clasp was too strong, and he swiveled my head back to face him easily.

“Oh,” he lamented, brushing his fingers across my wet face. I could feel the anguish in his voice. “I’m sorry, Fi’, I didn’t mean to hurt you. . .”

I nodded, looking down.

“Really, love, I am,” he pressed sincerely.

“I know,” I mumbled, although it still stung.

Words can never be unspoken.

He pulled me deeper into his embrace and combed his hands through my hair.

“Is that what you think of me though?” I whispered glumly, bowing my head, too ashamed to look him in the eye.

“No!” he protested quickly. “No, it’s not, Fiona, it’s not, that came out wrong, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded, it’s just. . . I feel like you are so anxious sometimes, like you’re on pins and needles, always worried about something, always nervous, I just wanted to see you relax a little bit, that’s all.”

I sighed.

Sounded about right.

Those observations struck home. And worse, whatever he said out loud was probably a highly sanitized version of what he really thought.

But before I could wallow in self loathing any further, he grabbed my jaw again and pulled me into a kiss. Our tongues met, and my worries quickly dissipated.

“We don’t have to drink anything, I’m sorry,” he promised quietly, combing his hands through my hair.

I sighed. “It’s okay, pour me a glass.”

“No,” he shook his head. “Never mind. It was a bad idea.”

“Jesse, I’m serious, I want some,” I lied.

“Fiona. . .” he cautiously.

“Pour me a cup, right now, I want a drink!” I demanded, reaching over him for the bottle.

“Alright,” he sighed warily.

He poured me a cup and handed it to me.

“Is this white or red?” I asked.

“White, I know you like white.”

“Thanks,” I smiled.

I sniffed the contents.

Riesling.

I remembered his earlier words.

Lighten up. Relax. . .

I braced and swallowed the entire cup in four big gulps.

“Easy there, small fry,” Jesse chuckled.

I grimaced as the sourness of the grapes hit my tastebuds. I never liked wine very much to be honest.

Jesse on the other hand hadn’t touched his drink. He was just studying me intently in a way that made me feel uncomfortable.

I stared at him.

“Aren’t you drinking, why am I the only one drinking?” I asked suspiciously.

He chuckled and took several swings of wine straight from the bottle.

Then he exhaled big.

“I’ve never seen you drunk, Fiona,” Jesse mused. “Are you a mean drunk?” I heard a smile in his voice.

I rolled my eyes. “First of all, I’m not getting drunk tonight. And no I’m not.”

“Okay,” he laughed. “So why don’t you tell me a funny drinking story?”

“I don’t really have any.”

“Come on, yes you do. Everyone does.”

“I have stories. They’re not all funny.”

“Tell me any one then.”

“Alright,” I moaned.

Hmm.

Aha.

I chuckled, remembering. “Well, this one time — ”

I told him about the time a wild SCU Greek life party got out of hand. One of the guys ordered a group of strippers for the night, but called a male dance company instead of a female one by accident, and a bunch of half naked cops showed up. Much to everyone’s surprise.

Jesse laughed at my story.

“That’s a good one. Where were you during all of this?”

“In the background,” I sighed. “As always. I wasn’t drunk, I never drink alcohol at college parties, so I guess it doesn’t really count as my story. I wasn’t involved at all, I suppose, this was just something I just witnessed. . .” I trailed off.

“It still counts,” Jesse insisted, grabbing my hand.

I smiled back at him, although I didn’t know if he saw.

A sense of dizziness came over me and I slowly exhaled. The alcohol was taking effect, wracking my head in waves. A huge calm washed over my body. Then a tired feeling.

I leaned onto Jesse’s shoulder. My eyelids drooped, and after a while, I stopped trying to keep them up.

A few minutes passed. Or maybe more than that? A half hour? I didn’t know.

All I knew is I was dangerously close to dreaming when Jesse’s soft, musical voice sounded.

“Fiona?”

My heart accelerated as I slowly began to rouse from unconsciousness.

“Yes,” I mumbled.

“Are you falling asleep?”

“No,” I lied.

He just laughed.

I shook my head and forced myself awake. “It’s just the alcohol,” I garbled.

Wow. I didn’t realize I was completely slurring my words. That statement was almost completely incoherent. How drunk could a person get from one — albeit large — glass of wine?

“Are you okay?” he asked, a smile in his voice.

“Yeah,” I confirmed in a wasted voice. “Just drunk.”

He laughed.

“We should pro’lly head back. . .” I mumbled in a daze.

“We will,” Jesse assured. “But before we do, I want to ask you something.”

Now?

“Can’t you ask me tomorrow?” I slurred, perplexed.

“No,” he smiled slyly. “Now is actually the perfect time.”

I exhaled, a little exasperated. Even drunk I wasn’t slow.

I knew where this was going.

“Jesse, I’m drunk and tired, I’m not really in the right frame of mind to deal with your lawyer bullshit — ”

“ — Wait, what?” Jesse laughed, interrupting me mid sentence. “My what? Did you just say my ‘lawyer bullshit’?”

I paused, trying to sift through the sedation. Did I say that out loud? Wow.

“Yeah,” I replied, strangely confident. “I guess I did.”

“What exactly does that mean?” he probed, a smile in his voice.

I sighed, a little frustrated.

Usually, if I was sober — or even mostly sober — I wouldn’t have taken the bait. Doing so would just lead down another rabbit hole of questions for him to ask and me to try to deflect. But I wasn’t sober. That ship had sailed a long time ago.

The words came tumbling out unintelligibly. “You know what it means. You’re always doing lawyer-y things, interrogating me like I’m a suspect, accusing me of hiding information, looking for a way to turn every conversation into a full blown cross examination. It’s like I’m a witness and we’re in court and you’re the opposing counsel or whatever you people call it.”

He laughed harder. “‘You people’.”

I kept going. “Like, why can’t you just take me at my word you always have to back me into a corner until you get some gem of information, you do it all the time, it’s like this lawyer switch you have in your brain it goes on and off but most of the time it feels like it’s on.”

The words were just spilling out. As I reached the apex of inebriation, all of my mental filters became completely obliterated. I knew in the back of my mind that this was a bad thing, but I was too drunk to care, the alcohol had relaxed me so. My revelations were at least supposed to annoy him, I’d hoped, but judging from the amused reaction he didn’t care in the slightest.

Jesse finished laughing and wrapped his arms tighter around me. “You are so funny, Fiona, I need to get you drunk more often. I love this side of you, I never get to see it.”

I rolled my eyes. “Don’t get your hopes u — ”

“You’re right though, I do interrogate you, I do,” he cut me off mid speech, musing placidly. His tone had completely changed into something much more serene and ponderous. “You’re like this little enigma, there’s so much I don’t know about you, so much I want to know. . .”

It seemed like he was talking to himself now.

My response was to gaslight him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about — ”

“ — but I’m getting sidetracked,” he interrupted, ignoring me again, shaking his head. “There’s something I wanted to ask you while you’re so. . . loquacious.”

The alcohol was swirling around in my head, retarding my reaction times. As I slowly processed his speech, the frustration set in. “Stop using big words — ”

“ — It’s about that sad book you keep reading,” he cut me off again.

I exhaled, a little exasperated. This would be more from earlier. “What about i — ”

“I tried reading it,” he interrupted serenely, continuing as if I hadn’t even spoken, staring past me. “It was too sad. I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. The. . . violence made it impossible.”

“It’s not that violent,” I interjected suddenly, a little defensively.

“What do you mean?” he latched.

I sighed in frustration.

Why was he making me explain what was so obvious?

“It’s only one scene in the book. And stuff like that happens all the time in real life. It’s not a horror story. Well, I mean it’s just not a made up — “

“What happens in real life?” he inquired.

“You know what.”

“Explain it to me anyway.”

I sighed, trying to find a way to both articulate and sanitize what I was about to say, but the alcohol was making it difficult.

“Just. . .bad things. Unhappy endings. Life isn’t fair, so why would you expect books created by living things to be that way? All rainbows and unicorns and fairytales?”

He chuckled. “You’re surprisingly articulate for a drunk person.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’m not drunk,” I lied.

There was a long pause. Then suddenly, out of nowhere

“Fiona, if I asked you a straight question would you give me a straight answer?”

I bristled. “Well, that depends on the question.”

He groaned in exasperation. “Fiona.

“Jesse. . .” I sighed. I knew where this was going.

He adjusted me to face him. His eyes were ablaze with curiosity.

“What happened to Susie. Is that what happened to you? Is that why you feel a connection with that story, why you keep reading it over and over?”

The question hit me like a wrecking ball.

My heart stopped and my stomach lurched.

A lump rose in my throat, like a ball of quicksand. I tried to clear the obstruction. But every time I did the thing just got bigger.

In that moment I felt so uncomfortable I just wanted to shrink into nothingness.

“Will you please tell me, Fi’?” Jesse’s quiet, musical voice probed again.

I looked down. Normally, in a situation like this I would start deflecting, misleading, changing the subject, making up my usual excuses. But the alcohol was making it hard react like I usually did. All of my defenses had fallen.

Jesse tilted his head downward, trying to keep level with my orbital position.

How could I respond without lying?

The words finally spilled out around the lump in my throat, so slurred they were almost incoherent. “Not exactly like that.”

He latched. “But something like that?”

I exhaled, surprisingly calm and relaxed, considering the taboo, off-limits territory of the conversation we were in. “I mean, I suppose, in like a general sense. . .”

I couldn’t believe I just admitted that.

“Keep going,” Jesse grasped. “What do you mean then, in a specific sense?”

I leaned back onto the grass. He lied down next to me, propped up on his wrist. Then the words just came gushing out. “Like, I was older than she was, I was 19, I was an adult, I wasn’t a kid or a child. . . although to be honest there were moments when it kind of felt that way. . . because I was so much smaller than them — ”

“Them?” Jesse seized.

“Yeah,” I replied slowly, a little confused by the latch.

Them. . .” he repeated and sighed big.

The alcohol was drowning my senses in successive waves and my usual sharpness was evading me.

What were we talking about again?

I could hear the sober version of myself screaming at me to shut my mouth, shrieking in my ear that I was about to ruin everything, but that woman was so distant right now, a thousand miles away, her volume on mute. . .

All I felt was tranquility and repose. The perfect, put together version of myself was trapped in a locked box, shrieking from inside, but I just had no interest in letting her out. Fuck, I deserved a break from being faultless once in a while, I thought frustratedly. It was exhausting putting on the perfect mental, emotional show for Jesse and everyone else.

“‘Them’, who is ‘them’, tell me what they did to you, Fiona,” Jesse probed softly.

“Just. . .some guys,” I yawned. “Some mean guys. Meanies.”

“Keep going, Fiona, tell me more.”

A sudden defensiveness came over me.

My eyes narrowed. “This isn’t fair,” I slurred. “I’m drunk.” I tried to get up.

“No!” Jesse whined sharply, grabbing me. “Please, Fiona we were just starting to get somewhere, don’t shut down on me now.”

Then, a surge of anger rushed through me as the dots connected themselves. I shook him off. “That was the whole reason for this little nighttime adventure wasn’t it?” I demanded. “To get me drunk? So drunk that I would spill everything? That was it, right? Right?”

I was still slurring incoherently from the effects of the wine, making my accusation sound significantly less formidable and dramatic than I had intended. Folding my arms across my chest, I glared, now standing.

Or trying to.

Jesse sighed, defeated, running his hands through his hair. “Yes, okay, yes. But please don’t stop now, Fiona we were so close — ”

“I want to go back to the tent,” I murmured groggily. “This conversation is over. Forget it happened.”

He rolled his eyes. “Well, I’m not going to forget it happened but you might.”

I glowered.

He smiled big and stood up, towering over me. “Are you mad at me, love?”

The heat rose to my face, and my heart fluttered when he caressed my jaw with his hands.

The smart thing to do was answer in the affirmative. But it would be a lie.

“That’s not even possible. . .” I whispered.

All of my filters were shot.

It was the truth. I still wanted to cut my tongue out. Was it really necessary that he knew how obsessed with him I was?

He chuckled and then out of nowhere I felt his lips press against mine. “Thank you, Fi’, for the honesty tonight. I’m sorry for my tactics. I’m afraid it won’t be the last time I resort to them, you still haven’t told me everything.”

I nodded sleepily. I was supposed to be mad at him but I was too tired. I would be mad at him tomorrow.

He laughed again and before I knew it, he was carrying me on his back and we were headed back.

After a few minutes, I murmured, “Jesse don’t hurt yourself I can walk.”

He threw his head back and laughed. “Literally, Fiona that is a joke you weigh less than like my mom’s little dog.”

I smiled weakly and slowly drifted off to sleep.

And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.

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