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A Moment Yet To Come

Chapter 1

Harper

 

Two and a half years earlier

 

I gazed at the girl in the dresser mirror with a detached kind of interest. With ghostly eyes, the girl stared back, shadowed features hidden within an ashen face. Involuntarily, my throat tightened, nervous energy pulsing through my body, shortening my breath. The girl merely blinked, her gaze pinning me, holding me to her against my will.

Desperation clawed inside me, the image of my own face swimming in the reflection of her eyes. Vainly, I searched their depths, trying to find the vibrant flecks of green I remembered seeing in them years ago, but somewhere deep down inside my consciousness, I already knew I wouldn’t find any. Whatever it was that used to make them shine was long gone now. All that remained were shadows. The sickly kind that could only come from the darkness of broken sleep and twisted nightmares.

Forcing my gaze away from her lifeless eyes, I studied her long, dark strands of hair, almost cringing at the sight of her high pony, drawn so tight it pulled at the skin on her temples. Her face showed no sign of the pain it was surely causing her. She was simply void of all emotion.

My chest ached as I looked her over, pity forming as I took in the greenish-brown tank top hanging on her too slight frame. The weathered material was so worn it was almost threadbare, and the thin, fraying straps did nothing to cover the sharp edges of her protruding collarbones, or the stretched elastic straps of her bra. I could’ve hinted at her to change into something more acceptable, but, sadly, I knew it was probably the best she had.

With a shaky breath, I exhaled, my gaze trailing back to meet my reflection’s. Forcing myself to pause, I waited for a sense of sadness to seep into me at the sight, but strangely, none came. I felt nothing.

A twinge of anxiety stirred inside me yet again. I needed to find something I could recognize; something that told me the strong, vibrant girl I used to be was still in there somewhere. It scared me to think she could be retreating farther from me each day, slowly fading from existence. I was terrified that one day I would look, and she’d be gone from me forever. I didn’t know if I wanted to be the person I was slowly being left with.

Taking a deep breath, I turned away from the mirror, trying to ignore the pain that came with the growing void inside me, and carefully, I picked up my school bag. Pausing at the closed door, I took a breath, pressing my ear against the cool surface, listening for movements on the other side. Only when I was certain of the silence, I hesitantly turned the knob, cracking it just enough to peek out.

Relief like no other washed through me as I took in the closed door at the end of the hall. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to cope with what might happen if it was open. Letting go of the breath I’d been holding, I nudged the door open a little wider and slipped through the gap, cautious to close it as quietly as I could.

With slow, deliberate movements, I started down the stairs, bracing my hands on the wall to lighten my footfalls as I went. I could see the front door in the shadows below, urgently beckoning me down. I was so close.

But somewhere in the middle of hell’s staircase, the wood creaked under my weight, wedging the breath tight in my throat. I froze, wincing as I listened for any sound that might indicate I’d been heard, but after a few more seconds of silence, I forced my shoulders to relax and lowered myself down to the next step.

As soon as my feet hit the bottom, I took a few calming breaths before I repositioned my bag, and tip-toed toward the waiting door.

“Just where do you think you’re sneaking off to?”

Oh God, no. My blood ran cold at the sound of her voice.

The bag fell from my shoulder as I straightened and turned to face her. “I was just leaving for school, Leanne. I wasn’t sneaking. I promise. I just didn’t want to wake Dad.”

She sneered at me. “You were going to leave without eating your breakfast?”

I blanched, my heart jumping to a whole new level of fear. Leanne rarely made me dinner, let alone breakfast. “I’m so sorry, Leanne. I didn’t realize you were making breakfast this morning.”

I knew the second the last word left my mouth that I’d said the wrong thing. Her face twisted like I’d slapped her, her eyes sharpening as they pinned me. Her steps toward me were fast.

“You fucking ungrateful little bitch. What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Are you saying that I never feed you? Are you trying to imply I’m lazy—that I can’t be bothered to make breakfast?”

I took an uneasy step backwards. Her eyes were turning wilder by the second, and I knew exactly what would come next. I had to force my hands to stay by my sides instead of holding them up by my head like my instincts were screaming at me to do. I knew from experience that would only make it worse.

Her hand shot out and grabbed at my hair before I could blink. I bit back a curse as her fingernails raked over my scalp. Damn it. I thought I’d tied it tight enough that she wouldn’t be able to grab it.

Leanne screamed, the sound more animal than human, and yanked at my hair, pulling my head down, closer to her shoulder height. I couldn’t help grabbing at her hands to stop the instant sting.

“You’re such a fucking waste of space! Your father and I bend over backwards to make sure you have what you need! We feed you. We clothe you. We buy all your fucking useless schoolbooks that are going to get you nowhere because you’re a stupid-ass fucking cunt! And then you fucking skulk downstairs and berate me for wanting to make you breakfast!”

“No, Leanne! I wasn’t. I promise,” I cried. She yanked harder, twisting my head to the side. “I just know how busy you are! You amaze me with how kind you are!”

Her grip loosened, and she took a tiny step back. I thought I might’ve gotten through to her, supplicated her enough to let it go, but then a hand closed around my throat, a large thumb and fingers biting into my jaw, squeezing hard. I whimpered.

My gaze flashed up to meet my father’s deadly one. His teeth clenched together and his nostrils flared. “You’re the stupidest fucking living thing on this fucking planet. It doesn’t matter how many times you’re told not to fucking wake me up, does it? You either can’t get it through that stupid fucking head of yours, or you just don’t care. Which is it?”

He glared at me, waiting for an answer, but I couldn’t breathe with his hand clamped around my throat. I begged him with my eyes to let go. Hatred oozed from every pore of his body, and his hand tightened with the anger my nonanswer brought.

“You’re just like your stupid-ass fucking mother. I can’t fucking stand looking at you. Why couldn’t you have just died when she did? You fucking embarrass me.”

His face began to be replaced with spots of both brightness and darkness, and I knew I was going to pass out.

Pain gripped my scalp as Leanne tightened her hold again, my father’s anger reigniting hers. She spat in my face just as her fist connected with my stomach. My body tried to gasp at the pain, but seeing as I was being denied any oxygen, it decided to just shut down instead.

The last thing I saw before I blacked out was both Leanne’s and my father’s disgusted faces, their lips soundlessly moving, telling me just how unworthy I was of the life they held so carelessly in their hands.

 

Chapter 2

Harper

 

I came to on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. Dad was nowhere to be seen, but Leanne was perched on a chair at the kitchen table, watching me with narrowed eyes as she drew deeply on her cigarette. I heard her make a sound of disgust before mumbling something that sounded a lot like ‘pity.’

Scrambling to my feet, I tried to steady myself by holding on to the wall before picking up my bag and slowly walking to the door.

“Have a good day!” Leanne sang before laughing in that slightly psychotic way of hers.

A couple of years ago it probably would’ve made me cry. Either that or I would’ve been angry. That was when I still had hope. When I still thought things could improve if only I could get away from them. God knew I’d tried. When I was thirteen, I packed my bags and ran away, vowing to never set eyes on them again, but by nightfall he’d found me, and when he got me home, he gave me the biggest beating of my life, promising me that if I tried it again, he would kill me. I didn’t doubt it.

For a few years after that, I still held hope. I made plan, after plan, after plan. But it was a futile effort, because as much as he hated me, he didn’t want to let me go either. Maybe he just loved taunting me. Maybe it was something else. Either way, I was his prisoner, and any hopes I’d previously had were long gone.

But one thing about hope was that if you didn’t have any, nothing could upset you. Things just were how they were. When you knew nothing was going to change, you just accepted it. This was my life, and it was always going to be my life.

With unblinking eyes, I moved along the sidewalk toward school. My head spun, fuzziness weighing it down, blurring my vision. I wondered if I had a concussion. My head would’ve had to have connected with something when I passed out. Neither my father nor Leanne would’ve done anything to break my fall. I had a slight headache, but there didn’t seem to be any isolated pain anywhere, from what I could tell.

My feet stumbled over the flat surface as I moved, and I scowled at my inability to walk straight. Forcing myself to concentrate even harder, I focused on placing one foot in front of the other, until I’d gone the few blocks to the school.

Their voices drifted toward me the second I walked through the gates.

“Oh my God. Look at her today. That’s a new level of fucking trashy, even for her.”

Then laughing. Always laughing.

“Jesus. Is she diseased? She looks diseased.”

“Fuck. She’s feral. Maybe she has rabies. Someone call animal control.”

Their words slowly sank beneath my skin and settled there, already starting to fester, but they wouldn’t know. No one would know. I’d learned to stop reacting years ago. It only seemed to encourage them.

Opening the front doors, I pushed inside, only to come face-to-face with Ethan Donovan. He made some loud noise of fright and jumped back from me, eyes wide with horror.

“Fuck me!” he said, his eyes darting back to his friends behind him before settling on me again. “When the fuck did the zombie apocalypse arrive?”

His friends all burst into fits of hysterical laughter as I stared, unseeing, at their group. I allowed myself one blink to absorb the flashing sting of pain that hit me before dropping my gaze back to the floor and heading toward the bathrooms.

“Fuck, man. You’re lucky you didn’t touch her. I don’t know about zombie, but she’s definitely infected with something.”

Murmurs of agreement floated down the halls before the bathroom door closed behind me. Moving toward the sink, I ignored the stares I could feel like knives piercing my skin, and waited for one to become free.

“Oh my God. Are you serious?”

I didn’t turn to look. I knew whom that voice belonged to, and there was no way I was going to give her the satisfaction of my attention.

Amanda made a gagging noise. “I really didn’t think you could get any worse, but I was so, so wrong.” I saw her shake her head with laughter in my peripheral vision before the other girls in the bathroom laughed with her.

I kept my gaze distant, still waiting.

“Can she even hear you, Amanda? I don’t think she can.”

“Is she retarded? She doesn’t even look aware right now.”

I felt a finger prod my arm.

“Oh my God! Don’t touch her! She’ll fucking give you a disease or something.”

The girl in front of me finished what she was doing and skirted around, giving me an unnecessarily wide berth. Moving up to the sink, I looked right in the mirror, taking in my appearance.

Jesus.

I refrained from whimpering or sighing at the sight of me. It was no wonder I was getting a little more than the usual taunts today. My hair was a freaking mess. The part Leanne had grabbed was bunched up and pulled half out of my ponytail. My neck had blotchy red marks on it from where Dad had held me, but instead of looking like I’d nearly been strangled to death, it just looked like some horrid allergic reaction.

And then there were my clothes . . .

I didn’t know what had happened while I was passed out, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say Leanne must’ve tipped some batter on me while I’d been lying there.

Taking my hair tie out, I finger combed the messy strands until they looked decent enough to tie back up.

Amanda laughed. “Why are you even bothering?”

Ignoring her, I finished tying it off before trying to clean up my clothes a little bit. It was tricky, but when the bathroom started clearing out, I was able to rinse it a little easier and hold it under the hand drier until the bell rang.

For the next two classes the taunting was reduced to a minimum, but only because the teachers were both in a no-nonsense mood for some reason. Usually they just looked the other way.

As always, I pretended their words didn’t hurt and avoided all eye contact. Most of the time it seemed to be the best tactic for them to become bored and move on.

Most of the time.

When the bell rang for lunch, I waited until everyone else had left before I stood and made my way to the door. Mrs. Cooper gave me an uneasy glance as I passed, the look in her eyes no different than the distasteful stares I got from my peers. The void inside my chest grew a little wider, the pain it brought making me gasp involuntarily. Despair followed, as it usually did, and the little voice that accompanied it asking me the same questions it had for the last few weeks.

Why was I bothering? What was the point?

My head spun as I walked through the hall. My stomach felt strangely empty. I was pretty used to skipping lunch. It was an occurrence that happened more often than not, so I wasn’t sure why I felt so weird.

Stepping outside, I squinted through the sunlight. Something wasn’t right. It was way too bright. Moving slowly, I made my way down to the end of the garden, where I usually sat during the lunch period.

Dane Walters, the football captain, hooted as I stumbled past their group. The guys laughed, all too willing to join in.

“The chick can’t even walk straight, man. Do you think she’s drunk?”

I wasn’t sure whose voice it was that said that, but I knew it was Ethan’s voice that replied. It was still fresh from that morning.

“What a fucking waste of space,” he said, a slight laugh in his voice. “She should just do everyone a favor and put herself out of her misery.”

Someone laughed. “Yeah, it’s not like anyone would miss her.”

Inside my mind, I gasped. The truth of those words hit hard. My head spun with it, causing me to stumble even more, and they laughed even harder.

What was the point?

 

***

 

After the last bell rang for the day, I stood at my open locker, staring lifelessly into its depths as despair tried to take me over. I knew what would be waiting for me when I got home. There was no doubt in my mind. Dad was always wound up the night after a bad morning. And it would all be my fault.

Closing my locker door with the softest of clicks, I hugged my bag to my chest and slowly made my way down the hall. The uneasy feeling that had been with me all day grew stronger with each step I took. Nausea rolled through my stomach like an angry sea. The walls tilted one way before righting themselves and then tilting the other. Voices carrying laughter, jeers, and taunts were thrown at me as I passed, but none of that mattered. None of that carried the weight of what I knew I was about to walk in to.

The short walk home somehow felt both too quick and too long. I wasn’t sure why that was. I guessed it was the two sides of me dealing with the same situation. The strong versus the weak. The strong was all but a shadow these days, but she must have been hanging in there. Without her I wouldn’t have been able to open the door.

Yet I did.

And then she was gone, the grip I imagined I had on her lost with just one punch to the face.

It’s a funny thing, really. In that moment, as I lay prone on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, a blinding pain behind my eyes, the tiny, weak part of me that was left inside my poor abused body remembered each and every moment a part of me had left. It had taken more than ten years, but I was finally down to the very last part of me. The void had won. It had taken me over.

Numb to my circumstances and numb to my life, yet still able to feel the pain of my broken body. Words of hate and disgust attacked the ghost inside me until I lay unmoving on the floor. Silent.

“You’re the most worthless piece of fucking shit . . . I don’t know what I did to deserve such a fucking idiot of a kid . . . I fucking hate you . . . Why couldn’t you have just died with her . . . ?”

 

 

 

Chapter 3

Harper

 

I barely recognized the person staring back at me in the mirror. I wasn’t even sure you could call her human, really. If I was to be honest, I could hardly believe it was me.

One of my eyes was so badly swollen it was reduced to a mere slit. The purple and black bruises that surrounded it had spread across my now-broken nose to the corner of my open eye—which had obviously sustained a broken blood vessel because it was the most bloodshot I’d ever seen an eye before. My lower lip was also swollen to about four times its normal size, with a nasty split right in the middle that still hadn’t stopped bleeding. Red marks blotted my jawline, almost morphing to take on a purplish hue right before my eyes. And above my left temple there was an angry, raw patch of skin where there had once been long, silky hair.

I stared at what I’d been reduced to for a long time, expecting to feel . . . something. Anything. But all I felt was the shadow of who I’d once been. A shadow that was fading before my eyes. And after that, all that was left was emptiness.

. . . What was the point?

I wasn’t sure how long I stared at that girl who was somehow me, watching her disappear from existence, but when I could no longer see or feel her within me, I knew the answer to the question. There was no point.

Glancing down at the dresser, I looked at the razor blade that had been sitting there for the past few days, taunting me. Up until now, I’d had enough strength to leave it be and walk away, but now? Now, I knew it was time.

With careful movements, I slid it across the scratched-up painted surface and pinched it between my fingers, studying its ordinary, shining edges. I waited for my heart to jump in fear at what I was about to do, but strangely, its beat stayed slow and calm. Looking back up at my reflection, I silently asked her if she was ready. The void in her eyes answered quickly.

I thought of my mother. I’d only been two when she’d been killed by a drunk driver, so I couldn’t remember her at all, but I still wondered what she thought of me now, standing here, ready to end it all. Would she agree with me? Sympathize with me? Or would she think I was weak? Too willing to give up?

 I set my memories from the day free, letting each moment flow through me with a strange clarity that warmed me in a reassuring kind of way. I saw Leanne’s rage, the loathing in her eyes as she screamed at me, clutching a fistful of my hair. I saw Dad’s hatred, the way his lips curled up into a sneer as his hand squeezed the life from me. I saw the honesty in his gaze as he spat out how much he wished I was dead. I saw the football guys’ repulsed faces when they found themselves standing too close to me for comfort. I heard their voices as they told me to just put myself out of my own misery because we all knew no one would miss me.

I saw and heard every moment of my day. And again, I asked myself, What was the point?

There was none. I was sure of it.

Taking the blade, I pressed it against the inside of my wrist, feeling it bite into my skin with a sting. Then, before I could think any more about it, I drew it across.

The pain wasn’t what I’d expected it to be. It was both a sting and a low throb. But it didn’t scare me. I squinted at the dark line that screamed against my pale skin, calming even more as I watched the blood start flowing from it.

Placing the blade in my other hand, I pressed it against my untarnished wrist and did the same, exhaling as I closed my eyes against the throb. When I opened them again, I met the satisfied gaze of my reflection, but her attention quickly slid to the room beyond her.

She was right, I thought as I gazed around me. It couldn’t end here. I didn’t want to take my last breaths in this festered hellhole of a house. Not where my father or his evil wife could touch me. They would never touch me again.

I didn’t think twice as I walked out the door. Not about the noise I was making, or the blood that was steadily dripping down my fingers, splattering on the pale gray carpet that lined the staircase. My only thought was to get as far away from that house as possible.

The bridge over the Rio Grande was barely a mile from the house. I didn’t remember the walk, but that was where I finally found myself a short while later. My movements were slow as I approached the guard rail, but I was calm as I glanced over the edge.

I didn’t have a plan. Not really. All I knew was that I was ready for it to be over—ready for the end, whatever that meant for me. I knew I could’ve curled up anywhere and let the life bleed out of me, but now I was here, I wasn’t prepared to wait any longer.

My head spun as I climbed the barrier to stand on the wide ledge. Silence was everywhere. It was as though the darkness was welcoming me, waiting with bated breath. I liked it.

Drawing in another shallow breath, I raised my face to the sky. I didn’t feel one little bit of regret for what I was about to do. Nor was I scared. I knew I didn’t belong here. There wasn’t one person on the planet that would care if I was dead or alive. No one would go to my funeral. No one would shed a tear for my passing. So, what was the point in staying?

I closed my eyes.

What’s the point?

What’s the point?

What’s the point . . . ?

I exhaled.

Then I let go.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

Ethan

 

Slamming my locker shut, I picked up my bag and slung it over my shoulder. I leaned against the door and watched Dane do the same before he turned to look at me with a glint in his eye.

“You coming to Pete’s?” he asked, jerking his head Pete’s way.

 I cocked an eyebrow. “It’s Friday. We just lived through two hours of complete torture. Do you really need to ask?”

He laughed and shook his head. “Nah, not really.”

We started walking out to the parking lot behind the other guys, closing the doors as we went. Every muscle in my body ached. I wasn’t exaggerating when I’d mentioned the two hours of torture. Coach had been on a mission at training. I didn’t know who’d pissed him off, but I really wished they wouldn’t do it again.

Dane peeled off when we reached his truck, patting me hard on the back as he went. “See you in a few.”

“Yeah, no problem, man. I’ve just got to head on over to Walgreen’s for the old man, then I’ll be around.”

He gave me a wave as he slid in behind the wheel.

Dumping my bag in the backseat of my jeep, I cranked the engine and swung out of the parking lot, blasting the latest top forty as I went.

Walgreen’s wasn’t far from the school, and it was right on the way home. Making a quick stop, I picked up Dad’s order before heading west toward the Rio Grande and home.

My mind was already on the night ahead. I was really looking forward to letting go and relaxing. Katy had given me more than a few hints that she wouldn’t be opposed to hooking up tonight, and if she was willing, I was all for it.

Following the road as it curved farther west, I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of the music. I wondered if Mom had made lasagna today. She knew it was my favorite and usually made it on the weekends.

The jeep jerked as I hit a pothole coming onto the bridge. “Goddamn it,” I grit out, pressing my lips together. If that damaged my new rims someone was going to pay. I sighed and loosened my grip on the wheel, trying not to let it get to me. It was harder than it should have been.

It was when I was somewhere near the middle of the bridge that I saw it. A girl. She was standing on the very top part of the guard rail, looking down at the drop before her.

“What the fuck?”

It took my brain another two seconds to comprehend what that meant before I slowed the truck down to a stop. I stared in my review mirror, wondering if I’d really seen what I thought I saw. Turning in my seat, I looked out the back window. Sure enough, there the girl stood, her arms casually down by her sides, still as a statue.

Fuck. What was I supposed to do now? Was she going to jump, or was she just out for a little adrenaline? I growled. What if she was suicidal? How was I supposed to help her? I didn’t know the first thing about talking someone off the ledge. Literally.

Cursing under my breath, I flicked on my hazards and climbed from the truck, searching the roads for someone to go do this instead of me. I frowned at the deserted streets, wondering where the hell everybody was. It was usually damn busy this time of day. Was I in some sort of freaky time warp or something? Goddamn it. Why me?

With my gaze locked on the girl, I strode forward, wondering what the fuck I was doing. My heart was beating like crazy. What did I do? I didn’t want to frighten her and make her fall. Fuck. What the fuck was she doing?

When I was only a few yards away, I saw her a sway a little. My heart leaped into my throat. Fuck this shit. If she fell, I was going to have nightmares for the rest of my life. I wanted to be that dick who yelled at her to get down from there right now, because she was scaring the shit out of me.

Slowing my steps to the point of practically stopping, I tried to think. I still had no idea what to do. My instincts were telling me the best option would be to just grab her and pull her away from the ledge.

She swayed again, and this time I didn’t think. Her body listed forward, and I reacted on instinct alone. Throwing myself toward her, I wrapped my arms around her tiny body and pulled her backwards, almost falling on my ass as I did.

She didn’t even make a sound.

With careful movements, I loosened my hold on her. I needed to make sure she wasn’t going to fall down on me before I let her go completely, then I slowly turned her around. I was on the verge of ripping her a new asshole she’d scared me that much, but I knew I should make sure she was okay before I even entertained the idea.

The moment the street light illuminated her face, I recoiled. “Whoa!”

Horror. That’s the only way I knew how to describe what I felt when I saw her. It wasn’t so much the bruising and the swelling—although it was probably the worst beating I’d ever seen on another human being. It was the fact that someone had obviously done this to her.

Emotions rolled through me faster than I could control them. My breathing started to come faster, not knowing how to deal with what I was seeing.

“Jesus . . . ” I rubbed my hands over my head. “What the fuck happened to you?”

I knew it was a stupid question, but I just couldn’t comprehend how someone could’ve done this to her. She was tiny. Helpless.

I looked down, into her eyes, and two things hit me at once.

I knew this girl.

And she was gone.

I tried to rack my brain for her name. Hayley? Hannah? Harper! Her name was Harper.

I stared at Harper, wondering how she’d come to this place. I’d seen her only this morning. Yes, she’d looked a bit straggly, but she wasn’t fucking beaten to a goddamned pulp.

Her eyes told me nothing. And I meant nothing. They were vacant. She just wasn’t there at all. She’d mentally shut down.

She swayed a little more, barely able to stand. I lurched forward to steady her before looking down at her, wondering if I should help her sit down or something. Fuck, I should probably call the paramedics or something.

Droplets of blood splattering the blacktop beside her feet made me pause. I frowned. She was bleeding? My gaze trailed upwards and I saw her wrist. And then the other one.

Reality hit me hard, knocking the air from my lungs. “Holy fucking shit.” My voice was strangely unstable. With hands shaking, I fumbled for the cell in my pocket and dialed 9-1-1.

‘9-1-1 Please state your emergency.’

“I’m on West Picacho Avenue. On the bridge! There’s a girl . . . she-she was going to jump. She’s bleeding, and”—I squeezed my eyes closed—“she’s been beat up pretty badly.”

‘We have someone en route. Is she conscious?’

I looked back at Harper and saw her eyes roll. “Oh, shit!”

Lurching forward again, I caught her just as she was going down. Why didn’t I lay her down before? Because I had no idea what to do with someone in this kind of state, that’s why!

Jesus. What the fuck was wrong with me? A good place to start would be to try to stop the blood flow!

Ripping a strip off the bottom of my T-shirt—which was a lot harder to do than I would’ve thought, mind you—I firmly wrapped it around one of her wrists, then did the same with the other.

“Just hold on, Harper. An ambulance is on the way.”

When I’d finished, I did a quick visual assessment to see if there was anything else I could think of. When I looked up at her face, I found her watching me. Her lips moved, but no sound came out. I was going to ask her what she was trying to say, but then she opened her mouth again. Her voice came out barely a whisper.

“What’s the point?”

I felt my eyebrows draw together. “The point of what?” I asked.

Her breath was starting to come quicker and shallower. “Life . . . ”

I stared at her, speechless. It was the heaviest question I’d ever been asked. She really had given up, hadn’t she?

The sound of sirens reached my ears in the distance, and I was suddenly reminded of the 9-1-1 operator. I knew I should probably find wherever I’d dropped my cell, but Harper’s gaze had captured mine, and I had the distinct feeling that it was the only thing holding her here in this moment.

“Ethan . . . ” she whispered.

I swallowed hard. Fuck, she knew who I was. “Yeah?”

She didn’t say anything. She just continued to watch me as the sounds of the sirens grew louder and louder. When the lights appeared in the distance, Harper’s eyes fluttered closed.

“Don’t do it, Harper,” I said roughly.

Her eyes flew open.

“Stay awake. They’re here now. You’re going to be fine.”

Her gaze softened and she exhaled, her body shuddering with the effort. “What’s the point . . . ?”

The memory of coming face-to-face with her that morning flashed before me, and I was instantly struck down with shame. I didn’t need to ask her to know that I had contributed to her being right here, right now, in this condition. I didn’t physically beat her the way someone else obviously had, but what I had done was much, much worse. I had helped beat her down with words, little by little, until she had nothing left to fight with.

I was a bully. And the thought made me sick.

 

Chapter 5

Ethan

 

It was another hour before I made it back home. The paramedics couldn’t tell me if she was going to be all right. The only thing they said was that she’d lost a lot of blood and she was in pretty bad shape. After that, the police had wanted to ask me a bunch of questions about what had happened. I knew one of them didn’t believe me when I said it wasn’t me who’d beaten her.

Pulling into the drive, I just sat for a long while, not really knowing how to deal with everything that’d happened. I had dozens of missed calls and messages from both my parents and guys from the team. I’d managed to message my parents while I was talking to the police, but I’d only said that I was running late and I wouldn’t be too much longer.

Shooting off a quick message to Dane, I told him something had come up and I had to help my dad. I definitely wasn’t ready to talk about Harper just yet, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I ever would be. Not to the guys, anyway.

Grabbing my bag off the backseat, I locked the truck and went inside, calling out hello as I ducked up the stairs to shower. I didn’t think it was a good idea for Mom to see me with blood all over my hands and clothes.

Standing under the hot spray of water, I tried to think of it as washing away the horror of everything that’d happened, but every time the memory of Harper’s beaten face came to mind, I instantly felt nauseated. I just couldn’t understand how someone could’ve done that to her—to anyone, really. Who would’ve done it? Was it someone from school, or was it someone she lived with? Fuck, maybe it was just some random person off the street. How the fuck did I know?

Turning off the water, I grabbed a towel and dried myself, disappointed it hadn’t made me feel any better.

I made it as far as throwing on some sweats before I collapsed on the edge of my bed. Leaning forward, I dropped my elbows onto my knees and hung my head into my hands. I just couldn’t seem to let it go. That really was some fucked-up shit.

A quiet knock sounded on my door, and I heard Mom’s soft footfalls coming closer.

“Hey. Are you all right, sweetie?”

I stopped myself before I gave her the usual, ‘I’m fine’ response. Slowly, I shook my head. “Not really.”

I felt her sink down on the corner of the bed. “What’s wrong?”

Exhaling long and slow, I lifted my head and stared out the window, wondering if I’d even be able to form the words. But strangely, once I started, I couldn’t stop it all from coming out.

“When I was driving home tonight, I saw a girl standing on the edge of the bridge.”

Mom gasped softly.

Swallowing, I continued. “I stopped the truck and walked back to see if she was all right. I had no idea what the hell to do. I didn’t know what she was doing. She didn’t give me any signs that she’d even heard I was there, and I didn’t want to scare her in case she fell.”

Mom’s hand squeezed around my arm. “Oh my God, Ethan. Is she okay?”

I turned away from the window at the sound of Mom’s distress and looked her in the eyes. I couldn’t hide the pain I felt. I knew she’d be able to see it in my gaze. It was everywhere. On me, inside me, around me.

“I was trying to work out what I should do, but then she swayed, and I just—” I tried to drag in a breath that just didn’t seem to want to fit inside me. “I grabbed her and pulled her back with me.”

Mom clutched her hand to her chest. “Oh, thank God!”

I shook my head, feeling a little desperate. “Jesus, Mom. You should’ve seen her.” My voice came out sounding a little strangled. I swallowed to try to dampen down my rising emotions. “She’d been beaten—her face was a mess. She couldn’t even open one of her eyes. There was . . . there was a mark on the neck, like a rope burn.”

“Oh my Lord,” Mom whispered.

“And . . . and her wrists were cut.” I clenched my hands together to stop them from shaking. The memory of seeing all that blood dripping from those open cuts was stained on the insides of my eyelids. The pain Harper must’ve gone through. It pierced me right in the center of my chest.

Mom pressed her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with worry.

“I called 9-1-1, and the paramedics came and took her to the hospital.”

“God, I hope she’s going to be all right. Her poor family. What they must be going through right now . . . ”

And this was the part that hurt the most. I took a breath, despair washing over me. “I know who she is, Mom.”

Mom’s eyes widened. “What?”

I nodded in that slow kind of way you do when you’re completely resigned to something you really wished you weren’t. “She goes to my school. She’s a senior, like me.” I swallowed hard, but nothing could keep the emotion out of my voice. “Her name’s Harper.”

“Oh, Ethan . . . ”

“She’s—” I didn’t know how to say it. I laughed humorlessly. “She’s an outcast, Mom. She doesn’t have any friends. Not one. Every day she comes to school, she gets picked on. She gets laughed at. She gets food thrown at her. She gets told she doesn’t belong.” I shook my head. “Just today—” I struggled to say what needed to be said. “Just today, I told her she should put herself out of her own misery.”

I heard Mom draw in a shaky breath, and I knew she would be feeling the shame. How could she not? And knowing she would be only made me feel worse.

“Who does that?” I asked through my anguish. “What the hell kind of person says that to someone?”

“Oh, baby . . . ” she said, taking my head in her hands and drawing me into her embrace.

I frowned with my disgust. “I just . . . I don’t know how I can fix this. I don’t know how I can make this better.”

“Honey, what’s done is done. It’s in the past, and you can’t change the past. The only thing you can do, is make sure that if this girl survives, she knows how deeply sorry you are.”

I dug the heels of my palms into my eyes, trying to erase the images that kept tormenting me. “What if it was my fault? What if my words were what pushed her to the point of giving up?”

Mom shook her head. “Oh, honey, you can’t think like that. Blaming yourself isn’t going to make the situation any better. You’ve been given this moment so you can make a choice. You either continue doing what you’re doing, or you make a change and become a better person.”

A strange kind of laugh escaped me. “I’m already changed, Mom. I will never do that to another person, ever again. I just . . . I need Harper to forgive me.”

She shook her head again. “You don’t need Harper to forgive you, honey. She doesn’t have to forgive you. That’s her journey. You need to forgive yourself, but before you can do that, you need to be able to fully understand and accept what your part in this was. When you can do that, you’ll be able to give Harper the heartfelt apology she deserves, and then you can move on.”

She pulled back from me, my face still resting between her hands, and looked me deep in the eyes. “If you look hard enough, Ethan, you’ll be able to see that you’ve been led to a crossroads. You can choose to keep traveling down the interstate with everyone else, or you can choose to take a different path. It might be bumpier than what you’re used to, but it might just be the most rewarding path you could possibly take.”

I drew in some deeper, calming breaths. “I know, Mom. I get it. I really do, but I will do everything I can to earn her forgiveness before I move on.”

 

Chapter 6

Harper

 

I was in a wheelchair. In a room with pale-yellow painted walls, a bed, a chair, and a nightstand. The one decent-sized window in the room overlooked the parking lot and gardens.

That was it. Nothing else. No dresser. No mirror. No sink. No pictures. No life.

When I wasn’t in bed, I was in the wheelchair, staring out the window. Sometimes I was on my own. Sometimes a doctor or a nurse sat in the chair and talked to me. Sometimes my father and Leanne came and pretended to care.

I didn’t speak. It was as though life had left me regardless of the fact that I was still breathing, and all that remained was my consciousness, but even that seemed limited. It was confined to the random thoughts inside my head and whatever information it decided to absorb inside this little room.

One thing it never let go of, though, was the certainty of who I was.

I was nobody.

I was without worth.

I was unloved.

These truths begged me to ask the same question, over and over again.

What was the point?

 

Chapter 7

Ethan

 

It had been a week since that horrific night I’d pulled Harper off the bridge. A week since my life was completely turned upside down. A week in which not one person at school mentioned the tiny, dark-haired girl who was missing.

I was ashamed. From what I could see, not one person seemed to have noticed her absence. It scared the absolute crap out of me to think what that meant. If I hadn’t driven past and pulled her off that ledge, would anyone have even known she was missing, or would her broken body still be floating down the river somewhere? The thought made me sick to my stomach.

I’d tried my best over the week to act normal, but judging by the number of times I’d been asked if I was all right, I’d say I’d failed. I’d contemplated just telling the truth; telling the guys exactly what had happened, but it just hadn’t felt right. I knew what everyone thought of Harper. Hell, I used to think the same thing, and I just didn’t know what I would actually do if one of the guys laughed about it, or said something that diminished her worth like I knew they would.

So I kept quiet. I pretended as best I could. And then, when I was away from the guys, I dropped in to the psychiatric hospital to see if I could find out how Harper was doing.

I’d learned a couple of things during my visits to the hospital. The hospital had privacy rules. And I’d only come across one nurse who was sympathetic enough to let me know that Harper was indeed still alive, but she wasn’t doing so good.

Every couple of days I’d gone in, I’d taken her a bunch of flowers I’d picked from our neighbor’s yard. The first day I’d taken in a big bunch of assorted types and colors, but the hospital had said they could only put the flowers in a plastic cup, so after that I made sure to only take in a handful.

It was late by the time I slipped in through the front doors. Visiting hours were almost over. But we had a game earlier, and I had to go through the usual post-game rituals before I could get away without it appearing odd.

Carol, the nurse who was actually nice enough to tell me shit, smiled as I walked in. I sighed with relief, knowing I was at least going to be told something.

“Good evening, Mr. Donovan,” she said when I stopped at her station. “No flowers today?”

I rubbed my hand over my face. I was feeling very tired all of a sudden. Making a sound of regret, I shoved my hands in the pockets of my jacket. “I had a game,” I said quietly.

Her smile went from teasing to sympathetic, then she sighed, and her expression turned a little sad. “She didn’t have a very good day today,” she said quietly.

My heart picked up its pace, nervous tension building between one beat and the next.

“It’s happened every time her parents have come to visit,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “She just seems to withdraw further into herself when they leave. I guess she misses them . . . ” Her voice trailed off, and she gave me a little smile that looked a lot like pity.

I glanced down the corridor, toward the rooms. I wished she would start talking. I wanted her to tell someone who the hell had beaten her up. I wanted to know if she was the one who cut her wrists, or did the person who beat her do it? I wanted whoever was responsible for her situation to be arrested.

“Do the police have any more leads?” I asked hopefully.

Carol pressed her lips together. “Unfortunately, until Harper starts talking, there’s not much they can do.”

“Yeah.” It was a fucked-up situation. That was another reason I hadn’t talked about it with the guys. What if it ended up being someone I knew who’d beaten her? I honestly didn’t think any of them had that kind of malice in them, but I couldn’t help looking at everyone I passed a little differently now.

Carol pressed her lips together. “You know, I could try to get you in to see her. Maybe she might talk to you. It’s amazing how much it helps when the patients know someone cares for them.”

I laughed humorlessly. Yeah, ’cause that’s exactly how she would see me. As someone who cared . . .

“She doesn’t really know me,” I said, trying to deflect. “I was just the guy who found her on the bridge.”

She shrugged. “You never know.”

I straightened and took a tiny step back. It was time for me to leave. “I don’t really think it’s a good idea. Thanks for letting me know how she is, though. I really appreciate it.”

She smiled and nodded, her eyes assessing. “Any time, honey. Think about it, though, okay? I know how much it can help.”

I gave her a brief nod and turned on my heel, wondering why I felt so panicked at the idea of seeing her again. I knew I needed to see her to actually apologize, but it was too soon, wasn’t it? I mean, Carol had said Harper wasn’t talking—that she wasn’t even really acknowledging when anyone was in the room with her—so there wouldn’t really be any point, would there?

Throwing myself into the driver’s seat, I dropped my forehead onto the steering wheel and groaned. I was such a fucking pussy. Sighing, I cranked the engine and pulled out of the parking spot. Guilt was some fucked-up kind of shit. I desperately wanted to purge myself of it, but I had a sinking feeling something this bad was the kind that stuck with you for life, and if that was the case, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

 

Chapter 8

Harper

 

My father and Leanne came to visit me late on Friday. Even with my limited ability to think straight, I knew exactly what their reasoning to come see me was, mainly because they talked about it in hissing whispers in front of me, as though I was too mentally unavailable to hear them.

It was a little bit contradictory, really. One minute they were hissing at each other as though I couldn’t hear them, arguing about why they were even bothering to visit me (neither of them wanted to be there, but Dad said they needed to keep up appearances because the police were getting suspicious), and the next minute they were threatening me with violence and death if I ever told anyone what had happened.

I would’ve laughed if I knew how. Death? Really? Did they forget I actually tried to kill myself? Obviously, death wasn’t something that scared me right now. Leanne had even used her trademark skill of pulling my hair, yanking my head back hard enough that my neck cracked, but it did nothing. I hadn’t felt a thing since that night on the bridge. My mind was long disconnected from the physical world.

No, death wasn’t a threat to me. Not anymore. It was actually at the top of my wish list. I was done. The voice was right to keep asking me that question, because now I knew the answer. There was nothing here for me anymore.

Fortunately for me, the weekend came and went with no visits from anyone but the nurses who liked to sit and chat with me for whatever reason. I guessed it was their job to try to get me talking, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever talk again. I was too far removed from anything but my own thoughts. And I liked it that way. No one could touch me here.

But, as it seemed with everything in my life, any reprieve I might’ve had ended on Monday morning, when the doctor came and saw me. He prodded and poked, and shined that God-awful light in my eyes. I wasn’t sure why he did it. Could he tell just from looking at my eyeballs how far away my mind had gone? Or was he purely testing to see if my gaze was actually focused on anything? Either way, I hated it. I could never force myself to blink to make it go away. It hurt and almost always left me with a headache.

After he left, I thought I’d get a chance to rest, but then Dad and Leanne arrived, souring my day completely. They both fussed over me while the nurse hung around making my bed and tidying up the little flowers that always seemed to appear in my room every couple of days. I liked those flowers. They reminded me that, somewhere out there, there was still beauty in life.

As soon as the nurse left, Dad snapped. He stopped in front of me, his hands clenched into fists at his sides and his jaw set tight with anger. I still wasn’t looking at him, but through my fuzzy, unfocused vision, I saw enough for my memory to put all the pieces together.

“Enough of this fucking bullshit, Harper,” he said through gritted teeth. “Stop the fucking charade and start talking. The police are asking questions, and you need to set them straight. Get them off our fucking backs, or I swear to God, I’ll make sure you don’t live to see your next birthday.”

I processed his words slowly, analyzing them like a script from a movie. It was strange hearing them when there was no fear to absorb them. They didn’t stir anything in me in the slightest. They were just words. Demands. Keep my mouth shut. Don’t talk. Get better. Talk. Lie.

A low growl rumbled around the room, then my head was being pulled back. Leanne had my hair again. Her face appeared in front of mine, but I still couldn’t feel.

“You fucking ungrateful little leech,” she grunted out, spit spraying out with her venomous words. “Cut your shit out and grow the fuck up. This isn’t a fucking game, you know.”

She tugged my hair again before letting it go, but then Dad was there, his hand gripping my jaw as he leaned in to stare at me. His other hand clipped the side of my head. “You’ve got until tomorrow, Harper. Start talking. Tell them you were mugged in the park on the way home from school.” His hand tightened even more. “I mean it. Fucking do as I say. If you tell them anything, you’re dead.”

He released me just as I heard the door open. I couldn’t see who was there, but I saw both Dad and Leanne tense.

Blood rushed back to my head, and I was caught in a wave of dizziness, my body slumping sideways in the wheelchair. The sound of their voices became muffled, replaced by the sound of my body trying to survive. I heard the words, ‘under arrest’ and the sounds of handcuffs being snapped shut, but I couldn’t really work out what was going on.

Leanne started to yell, and I heard Dad tell her to shut up. Then the nurse was there. I think she was touching my arm, but I couldn’t be sure. A deep voice was reading out someone’s Miranda Rights, and I found myself starting to fill with relief, although I had no idea what I was supposed to be relieved about. All I could think was, Good.

The room emptied and then it was just me.

Me and the pretty blue flowers in their little plastic cup.

I liked those flowers.

 

Chapter 9

Ethan

 

I stayed away from the hospital all weekend. It didn’t matter how hard I tried not to think about Harper and my apology, my mind always ended back there.

I knew she deserved an apology. Fuck, she deserved a lot more than that, but the idea of going in there and laying it all out on the line like that freaked me the fuck out. I wasn’t sure why. I hadn’t worked that one out yet, but after a weekend of failing to figure it out, I knew I just had to man up and do it already.

Walking next door, I opened the gate and looked around. Mrs. Waters had so many varieties of flowers, I wasn’t sure I would’ve been able to count them all. Settling on a smaller flower with differing shades of pink, I plucked a few before turning and cutting a tiny branch of fern off a nearby plant.

“Well, hello there, Ethan.”

I turned at the sound of the voice and smiled. “Hi, Mrs. Waters. I’m just on my way to the hospital.”

She smiled. “And how is your friend doing?”

Inhaling deeply, I gave her a noncommittal little shrug. “Hopefully better today.”

She nodded in earnest. She didn’t know the exact details of what had happened, just that a friend of mine had been involved in an assault incident. “Yes, poor dear,” she said, shaking her head.

I held up the flowers. “Well, thanks for letting me steal your flowers.”

“Any time, dear. You know I don’t mind.”

Letting myself out the gate, I carefully placed the flowers on the passenger seat and started the truck. I still hadn’t decided if I would see Harper just yet. Hell, I didn’t even know if Carol could really even get me in to see her to begin with. I knew I was being a complete chicken shit, but it was a big deal, and I didn’t want to fuck it up.

I figured my best bet was to just see how things went. If Carol was there and she asked me again, then I’d do it. If not, then I knew it wasn’t meant to be.

Pulling into a parking space, I turned off the engine and grabbed the flowers. Nervous energy pumped through my system as I walked up the path to the front doors. I tried to rack my brain for words I wanted to say to her if I did in fact end up seeing her, but nothing came to me. I was so screwed.

Relief and disappointment hit me at the same time when I saw Carol wasn’t manning the station. It was a nurse I’d spoken to a couple of times the week before, who refused to tell me anything.

She gave me a disapproving look as I approached. “Can I help you?” she asked, slight sarcasm tainting her tone.

“Probably not,” I said, giving her an equally sarcastic smile. Holding the flowers out to her, I said, “How is she today?”

She managed to refrain from rolling her eyes at me and took the flowers. “I’m sorry, but I can’t give out patient information.”

I inhaled and opened my mouth to tell her where to shove her rules when a voice calling out my name stopped me short.

“Mr. Donovan.”

 I looked up to see Carol walking toward me. My heart jumped, but I wasn’t sure if it was from excitement or panic.

“That was good timing,” she said when she reached me. “I just finished talking with Dr. Greene.”

I gave her a look that told her I had no idea what she was talking about.

“He’s agreed that it might be a good idea for you to see Miss Allen.”

My eyes widened. “Right now?”

“No time like the present,” she said, not giving me a choice in the matter. “Grab those flowers of yours and follow me.”

Looking over at the other nurse, I took the flowers back from her and shrugged at her look of annoyance. She made a small noise that sounded like a huff and shook her head. I almost missed it, but there was also a tiny eye-roll in there with it. I wanted to tell her to suck it, but I suddenly felt like I was going to be sick.

When we rounded the corner, Carol stopped and pulled me to the side. “There’s something you should probably know,” she said quietly. “Harper’s father and stepmother were arrested today.”

I recoiled. That had been the last thing I’d expected her to say. I thought she was going to tell me something that would help me interact with Harper, but that? Arrested? Fuck.

“What were they arrested for?” I asked, my voice low and dangerous.

I think I knew before she said it. I didn’t know why. There was nothing that should’ve made me think it, but it was there in my thoughts nonetheless.

Carol sighed. “The police suspect they’ve been the ones assaulting her. We have surveillance cameras in the rooms, and they caught them . . . grabbing her this morning.”

I blanched, my mind caught between two things. “They assaulted her here, in the hospital?”

She nodded sadly.

I paused, forcing myself to swallow down my rising anger. “You said, the police suspect they’ve been the ones assaulting her, like it was something that happened all the time . . . ”

Carol frowned, and her shoulders slumped a little. Giving me a sympathetic look, she acknowledged my words with a nod. “Honey, she has scars all over her back, and the X-rays show at least half a dozen old breaks throughout her body.”

I held up a finger to silence her and turned to face the wall. Motherfucking shit. I didn’t know it was actually possible to feel any worse than I already did. All that fucking shit she went through at home, every goddamned day of her life, and then she had to come to school and put up with my shit. I was the biggest fucking asshole on the face of the planet.

I leaned forward, and my forehead hit the drywall. I left it there and screwed my eyes shut tight. Now I knew an apology would never be enough.

“Sweetie,” Carol said, lightly touching my arm, “she’s going to be okay. We just need to reach her. She’s protecting herself right now, keeping herself far away, but we need to bring her back so we can work with her. She’s been forced to repress herself to the point that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. We need to teach her that she’s not this unworthy, unlovable person she’s been told she is for so long. We need to help her discover who she is, and to love that person unconditionally.”

Lifting my head from the wall, I looked up at the ceiling. Why the fuck did she keep saying ‘we’? I hoped to God she meant the hospital. The doctors and nurses, and not me. But when I finally turned to look at her, I knew she was asking me for help.

“Carol,” I said a little helplessly, “she doesn’t know me. I can’t help her.”

“And that’s fine, really. Dr. Greene was just concerned with everything that’d happened today—she seems to have withdrawn from life even more since the police came, and he thought because you were there when no one else was, she might trust you enough to come out a little bit.”

I rubbed my hands over my face. This was just getting worse. I didn’t know how this had gone from me stressing over a damned apology to me being a source of savior, but it felt like an awful amount of fucking pressure.

I sighed and closed my eyes. Perspective came to me like a shot. I owed her. I fucking owed her, big time. I honestly didn’t think it would work, but if there was any chance at all that it could, then I had no right to deny her.

Steeling myself, I turned to Carol and gave her a nod. She smiled and squeezed my arm. Walking me forward, we stopped in front of a door. Before she opened it, she gave me a firm look. “There’s a camera in the room, but there’s no microphone, so even though we’re able to see you, we can’t hear you. Okay?”

I let her words sink in slowly before letting her know I was okay with it, then she opened the door, and I stepped inside.

 

Chapter 10

Harper

 

I heard the door open, then close. It was a few moments later before I heard the sounds of footsteps on the floor. A large shape appeared in front of me. Male. They shifted uncomfortably several feet away.

“Hi, Harper,” the voice said softly.

Conflicting emotions instantly swelled inside me. There was a fear attached to its familiarity, but strangely, there was also a calmness that washed over me with the soft timbre of his voice. Somehow, it reminded me of being safe. The feeling confused me.

“It’s . . . uh, Ethan,” the voice said. “Ethan Donovan.”

Ethan? I searched my memory. Ethan Donovan? From school? Instant flashbacks came at me in the form of taunts and laughter. My consciousness flinched. But again, there was also a warmth that came out of nowhere, surrounding me like a nice, soft blanket, and I was suddenly seeing him crouching over the top of me, comforting me in a time when everything was dark.

I remembered saying his name then. It hadn’t sounded bitter or sad. It’d sounded soft and loving. I remembered asking him to help me figure out the answer to my question. I couldn’t remember if he’d answered me, though.

“Harper . . . ” A wave of something went through me at the sound of my name from his lips. His voice. It did something to me . . . Weird.

“I know I’m the last person you probably want to see right now,” he said softly. “And I’m sorry if it upsets you for me to be here. I just . . . I wanted to come and tell you how sorry I am. I know it probably won’t make an ounce of difference, but I wanted to say it just the same—just in case it did.”

My mind searched for his reasoning. He was sorry?

“The things I used to say to you. I didn’t really mean it that much, you know. It was just a bit of fun with the guys . . . ”

His voice sounded so raw now. Hurt. I liked the soft warmth better. The hurt made me hurt.

“I never thought, not even for one minute, just how detrimental words like that could be. I never thought past myself to actually see. I’m so ashamed, not only of what I’ve said and done, but of the fact that I never opened my eyes to see.”

His voice cracked a little, making my heart give a little quiver. Memories seemed to be getting a little clearer as his words flowed. Memories that brought pain. My natural instinct was to block it out. Block him out, but I needed to hear what he had to say. I needed to hear his voice, hear his pain.

“I just didn’t see,” he said. “Not just how much I hurt you, but how much everyone hurt you. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t selfless enough to see and stand up for you, Harper. Hell, not just you, but anyone that gets bullied. I’m ashamed that it took finding you like that to open my fucking eyes.”

A memory of him tending to my cut wrists flashed at me, along with a pain so sharp I almost gasped. I was a mess that night. And he saw me. He saved me.

“So . . . I’m sorry.”

I vaguely saw him rough his hands over his head. He seemed frustrated.

He groaned. “Fuck. That sounds so fucking lame. It’s just—it’s not enough. It’s never going to be enough, Harper. How can I ever make it enough?”

Silence filled the room for a while. I was glad for it. His words and his presence were doing something to me. Places inside me were starting to hurt.

“Harper . . . ?” he said, sounding a little more in control of his voice now. “I want to tell you something, and it’s not because I feel like I need to make up bullshit to make amends. Obviously I don’t know you very well, so I’m just going to tell you what I know.”

I felt him studying me for a moment, like he was trying to find the right words.

“You’re beautiful.”

The words hung there, confusing me. I didn’t understand them. What did he mean?

He laughed, although there wasn’t a trace of humor in it whatsoever. “Yes, I’m aware your face is covered in bruises right now, but I remember what you look like without them. You are beautiful.”

I had bruises on my face? Oh, that’s right. My mind jumped from one moment in time to another and back again. I still didn’t understand what he was saying about beautiful.

The sound of Ethan swallowing made me pause all thoughts.

“You’re intelligent,” he said, like he was making a list of some kind. “I’ve seen your grades in English and Math. I know you’re probably smarter than anyone I know.”

Wait. Ethan knew what grades I got in Math and English?

“You’re kind. You spend hours down at the animal housing, caring for all the sick and injured animals.”

My mind was suddenly wide awake. How did he know that?

I heard him sigh. “I wish I knew more about you, because I know there’d be so many more amazing traits I could list if I did.”

Ethan sank down on the empty chair by the window and hung his head. My mind was in a state of confusion. I honestly thought no one had noticed anything I’d done when they weren’t taunting me. How could I have gotten it so wrong? What else could I have missed?

“That night on the bridge,” he said, bringing me back out of my head, “you asked me what was the point of life. You know, that’s the million-dollar question everyone asks themselves at some stage in their life. Shit, I ask myself that every week.”

He sat up straighter, and I felt his eyes boring into me. “But don’t you believe the answer is nothing, Harper, because that’s just a trick. Everyone has a purpose. Everyone has a point to their life. Everyone’s life means something. You just haven’t found it yet. It doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

My heart was hammering.

“You have worth, Harper. Believe in yourself. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met. You need to believe in yourself.”

I wasn’t sure how long we sat there after that. His words shocked me. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. Did he mean it? Did he believe it? Could I believe it? The idea of it scared and excited me at the same time. I wanted to believe it, but I just wasn’t sure if I ever could.

The sound of Ethan standing made me pause yet again. I saw him place something on the table before moving to the door. My heart sank a little, knowing he was leaving.

The door opened.

“Bye, Harper. Be good to yourself. You can be happy if you just give life another chance. You deserve it.”

And then he was gone. The sound of the door closing was too much for me. His words had hit me hard.

Slowly, I turned my head toward his absence and stared at the door.

 

Chapter 11

Ethan

 

I walked out of Harper’s room and closed the door. I’d failed. I didn’t know why I’d expected anything different. As far as she was concerned, I was just some asshole guy who’d made her life hell. I was a prick.

Rubbing my hands over my face, I exhaled a heavy breath. Fuck it. I did what I’d come to do. Like Mom said, it was Harper’s choice if she was going to accept my apology or not. That wasn’t something I could control. I just needed to know I’d done all I could to let her know how sorry I was. What I had to concentrate on now was proving it. Words were okay, but actions were better. And I knew just what I needed to do.

Stepping away from the wall, I started down the corridor, only to stop short when Carol came out of a door in front of me. She had her hands pressed together like a prayer, but she held them up, covering her mouth and nose. Her eyes were bright and shining, like she was smiling behind her hands.

I felt my brows crease as I watched. I didn’t understand why she’d be looking at me like that.

Taking her hands away from her face, I saw she was in fact smiling, and I couldn’t for the life of me work out why.

“You did it,” she whispered.

She was confusing the hell out of me. “Did what?” I asked carefully. “She didn’t even blink, the whole time I was in there.”

As soon as I said it, I realized it was true. Jesus, how was that even possible?

Carol shook her head. “Ethan, she turned and looked at the door when you left.”

I almost laughed at how ridiculous that sounded, but even I knew how much of a big deal that really was. “She did?”

She nodded and laughed. Pulling on my arm, she tilted her head to the room she just came out of. “Come here.”

I followed her in and saw it was some type of surveillance room. There were monitors everywhere. Carol pointed at a screen down at the bottom, and I instantly recognized Harper, sitting in her wheelchair, right where I’d left her. Everything looked exactly the same as when I’d been in there with her, but there was one major difference. Now, clasped lightly in her hands, resting in her lap, were my flowers.

Something strange swelled inside my chest. I didn’t know how I could even tell from the tiny grainy picture on the screen, but Carol was right. There was a definite change in her. I didn’t know what it was that had sparked life inside of her, but there it was. Harper was waking up.

I shook my head as I stared at the screen. “I didn’t even do anything,” I said weakly.

“Sweet child,” she said, smiling at me kindly. “I told you, sometimes words aren’t what’s needed. It’s just the knowledge that there’s more to life than what you’ve known. It’s hope. That’s what you’ve given Harper today, Ethan. You’ve given her some light in a world where she’s only ever had darkness. You’ve given her something new to consider. And that’s a gift that’s worth a million times more than any one word.”

Her words made sense. They did. But I still didn’t see how my presence could’ve given her all that. I was part of the reason she was here in the first place. I had contributed to her downward spiral.

Shaking my head, I inhaled deeply. It didn’t matter. None of that mattered. What mattered was Harper, and the fact that she seemed to have turned a very important corner. Whether it was me, my presence, my words, whatever, was inconsequential. For me, the important thing now was the path I took from here, and how hard I was willing to fight to stay on it. I knew without a doubt it had to be one that made a difference. One where every word I spoke—every action I took—was done in Harper’s name.

I’d already started. Just little things. Like a smile directed at someone who usually hid in the shadows. A greeting given to someone who’d previously been segregated to a lower rung of an invisible hierarchy. A moment to simply see someone and acknowledge their existence. I knew I had a long way to go to even begin making amends, but I was trying.

“So, what happens now?” I asked carefully.

Carol sighed. “It’s difficult to know exactly, but the first step to healing is being able to talk about it. Hopefully this is the beginning of her shedding all those layers she’s wrapped herself in for protection. Some patients work well at this stage and see it as a kind of rebirth—a chance to start again. Some just can’t let go of the past enough to trust again.”

I glanced back at Harper’s door and thought of the way she’d looked that night on the bridge. I thought of all the crap she’d been dealt—both at home and at school—that had finally pushed her to that very moment. If she could recover from that—if she could find a way to break out of the cocoon she’d forged around herself—then she would be the strongest person I would ever know, and she would deserve the world.

And if she managed to emerge from her cocoon as the beautiful butterfly she was meant to be, I wanted to be able to show her just how much meeting her had changed me too.

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