Kael—Two Years Earlier
My truck roared down the small street. I continued to hit my hands against the steering wheel as I drove far enough down the dark road to be out of her eyesight. I slowed to a stop on the gravel pull out at the end of her street and stumbled out of my truck. The ground was soaked with unforgiving rain, and as I looked into the darkness, I couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of me. It had only been two minutes since I’d left Karina at her house, but the guilt weighed heavily on me and the passage of time felt like years.
I reached for my phone and called Fischer. My hands shook intolerably and the rain soaked my phone as I waited for him to pick up.
“Hey, man—what’s up?” he asked casually. The sound of his nonchalant voice immediately triggered my anger. Even if I knew that both of us had done the right thing, I needed someone to be pissed at.
“Your sister found out,” I told him flatly.
“Found out what?” he asked. I knew he wasn’t that damn clueless. He was in shock, not that ignorant.
“Where are you?” I was beyond impatient and I could hear women’s voices and music in the background of wherever the fuck he was.
He paused, then took a deep breath in before responding. “I’m at Mendoza’s. What do you mean my sister found out? Tell me it’s not what I think it is.”
“It’s exactly what you think it is. I’m on the side of the road and I didn’t call you for a heads-up, Fischer, I called to tell you that your sister is devastated and could really use you right now.”
“Did you tell her? I thought we were—”
Before I could help it, I slammed my fist against the hood of my truck. “It doesn’t fucking matter who told her, what are you going to do about her right now?”
“I don’t even have a car, what can I do?”
“Are you drunk?”
“No . . .” He was lying. “Yeah, I mean, I’m not sober. But it’s not like I knew this was going to happen and got plastered so you had to deal with her. Maybe call Elodie? But she’s been working all day, so—”
I ended the call before he offered another not-thought-out solution.
The rain took a short break, long enough for me to consider driving back down the road to beg for her forgiveness, to explain why I did what I did. The weight of the world pushed against my shoulders as I imagined her at home alone, sitting in the dark kitchen feeling completely betrayed. I’d made the choice when I met her to try my best to take care of her, to make her life better, easier, but all I’ve done is fuck it up. Even though I was trying to help.
I was the one encouraging her brother to get into the Army before he could tank his life in a serious way. That’s what this was—the sacrifice was temporarily hurting Karina, but in the big picture of her life, her brother being alive and breathing would matter more to her than the feelings she thought she had for me. A year from now she would be proud of him instead of mourning his absence. After a month or two she would barely think of me. She deserved to have that, and I didn’t deserve to have her, so this was the way things would be. She will never leave my mind, but isn’t love supposed to be about sacrifice? I didn’t know; I had never loved anyone before, but it felt right. It felt wrong, but so right.
I hoped to god Elodie was home and could comfort Karina. I thought about calling Elodie, but I didn’t want to admit what I had done, and I knew she had become attached to Karina’s brother and would be pissed at me, too, so I took the easy way out, climbed into my truck, and drove to Mendoza’s. The solution wouldn’t be there, but I knew a bottle of tequila would.
Mendoza’s house was lit up with every single light on. All the other houses on the street were dark and quiet. I parked in the driveway right behind his van and took a breath before getting out. Soon I wouldn’t be able to come here when shit went wrong. Soon I would probably only see him at funerals or weddings, or maybe never again. That’s how it was in a soldier’s life—you had unbreakable bonds, but when people got out they usually moved back to where they came from, and hardly ever looked back. Mentally they had never left, even if they had physically. And in their minds they would come back often, even if their bodies didn’t. Well, they looked back all the time, but physically never came back.
I heard Mendoza’s voice before I saw him.
“Your truck keeps gettin’ louder. I can hear it a damn mile away.” He greeted me with a soft smack to my shoulder.
“Yay, you’re here!” Gloria, Mendoza’s wife hugged me, and I tried to force a smile. Suddenly, I wondered why the hell was I there? I didn’t deserve the comfort of friends right now, when I knew Karina had no one. Carefully moving out of Gloria’s arms, I tried to think of an excuse to leave even though I had just arrived.
Fischer’s voice rang through the living room. “Yoooo.” He slurred his words.
He was lazily sitting there, his arm stretched across the back of the white sofa. His eyes were barely open.
“How drunk are you?” I asked, moving closer.
He laughed a little, tilting his head. He looked so much like Karina that it made me want to throw up.
“Nah, I didn’t drink.” He nodded to Mendoza and Gloria, who were being grossly affectionate in front of us.
Mendoza kissed Gloria’s forehead. “He hasn’t drank since he got here. But he’s on some shit, that’s for sure.”
Gloria rolled her eyes and shot Fischer a look of disapproval. Fischer smiled and stretched his neck. He was definitely high out of his mind. “What are you on?” I pushed his shoulder and he moved like Jell-O.
“Some soldiers dropped him off here like that, but I don’t know them. I think he bought pills from them.”
“Again?” I groaned. This motherfucker was really driving me crazy.
I kneeled in front of him, and in the reflection of the window behind Fischer saw Gloria and Mendoza leaving the room. There was a plastic baggy sticking out of the pocket of his sweats. I grabbed it and he tried to stop me, but his reflexes were too slow from the drugs. Long white rectangular pills and traces of white powder from them danced as I shook the bag in front of his face.
“You won’t be able to do this shit soon. They’re going to piss test you regularly, and they will kick you out or lock you up if you don’t pass.”
“I know, I know. I just wanted one last night to celebrate.” He groaned. There was a sadness in his voice that almost made me feel for him. Almost.
“Your sister is completely destroyed right now, and you’re here high as a kite, not having to feel shit.”
He closed his eyes. “You’re here too. Not with her.”
“She wouldn’t let me stay.” I defended myself.
This irresponsible asshole gets to numb himself with drugs and I have to just deal with it; so does she. It was unfair and infuriating. Times like this I wished I could show Karina why I helped her brother enlist, why his life was in danger, and why all of this was for her, whether she could see it yet or not.
“You and I are the last people she would want around her right now.” His voice was fading, his eyes bloodshot slits. “Maybe ever. And look, I know I’m a fuckup, but tonight just leave me alone with my mistakes? Please, bro.” His desperation bled through his intoxication.
I didn’t say another word as his head dropped to the side. I just sat and stared at him, hoping I was doing the right thing. I watched the rain through the window as he slept—or passed out—and Gloria and Mendoza never came back.
“Whose food is this?” I tossed the dirty bowl into the overflowing sink.
No one answered, and I didn’t even know if anyone was home except me. Gunk-crusted dishes stacked in a chaotic pile filled my usually clean sink. There were beer bottles, half empty and fully empty, on the counter along with wadded-up potato chip bags, crunchy pieces of instant ramen noodles in their foil wrappings, and torn flavor packets dotted with “chicken” flavored crumbles of seasoning. For a couple of weeks now things had gone downhill. I had never allowed my place to look this disastrous, but I couldn’t find it in me to give a shit lately. I used my teeth to tear open another package of ramen and pushed a pile of empty take-out containers out of my way. I was fully aware that the trash can was merely three feet away, but it didn’t matter. Not much mattered these days.
I filled a bowl with water and pushed the noodles down far enough to be covered before lazily putting my dinner into the microwave. I’d grown up eating ramen, convenient and cheap, ten cents apiece. Most of the time I didn’t bother to cook them and just dumped the uncooked noodles into a Ziploc, poured the seasoning in, and took it to school. I spent more time making my sister’s lunch when she got tired of being in the free-lunch line. I did whatever I could do for her because she was the brains of the family and needed the fuel more than me. Our mom’s work schedule of two jobs didn’t allow us luxuries some families had. Time consuming lunch preparation, perfect packages composed of every section of the food table, handwritten notes wishing us a good day, expensive sodas and name-brand chips . . . we didn’t have any of that—we had a mother who woke up before the sun and barely got a meal herself before her night job.
I used to be bitter about it and wish I had what the privileged kids I saw on TV or met during football-game parties at the rich white schools had. Being what was considered talented at football gave me opportunities to mingle with kids who lived in wealthy Atlanta suburbs. I got invited to big houses with pools in the yard, and once a kid gave me a brand new pair of Jordans just because he already had a similar pair. It would have been easy to feel like he was looking down on me, but I didn’t really care since I knew I could sell the shoes and buy my sister a new school uniform and take her to the movies with the money. New cars and fancy new Nikes, but none of them seemed to know what sacrifice was. Not one of them knew what it meant to work for what they had, and it made me appreciate my mom more. Even though she couldn’t go to my games often because of her work, I knew that the reason I could play was because of her.
Karina melted into my thoughts. One of the things I respected about her the most was how hard she worked to have what she wanted. She could easily ask her dad for help, but she never did. If something was broken, she fixed it. She was proud that everything she had was literally from her own two hands, and it made me feel connected to her because I value working for what you have more than most people my age do.
The familiar smell of the ramen made me want to call my mom or my sister, but I knew I wasn’t in the right headspace at the moment, and they had more important shit going on in their lives than me sulking on the phone and lying that my life was going great.
I heard the sound of the front door closing as I inhaled a mouthful of noodles. I knew every sound of this place, and most places.
“Yo! You home?” Fischer’s voice rang through the duplex, bouncing from one wall to the other.
He walked into the kitchen before I bothered to answer him. His face was blotchy and his light hair was a mess. Swollen blue circles sunk under his normally bright eyes.
“You look like you feel like shit,” I told him.
He nodded. “Because I do.”
Fischer lifted his T-shirt up and wiped his face with the bottom of it. “I am so out of shape. Basic is going to kill me.” He plopped his head down on the counter.
He was leaving in two months, and had started trying to get into shape about a week ago.
“Yeah, and I’m sure the drugs help,” I reminded him.
He shook his head. “You’d be surprised.” His grin was sarcastic and charming, even if we were joking about something heavy.
“Have you talked to your sister yet?”
He groaned. “You ask me that every day.”
“Have you?” I poked his sweat-covered arm with my spoon. “Huh?”
He rolled his head, whining, “This is like having two annoying siblings annoy you at the same time.”
“Good. You’ve completely ghosted her since she found out about you enlisting.”
I was envious that she cared enough about him to bother him. She hadn’t texted or called me once since that night. I kept checking her social media, and for the first week it was great, but she eventually blocked me. I wondered if I accidently clicked something and gave away my stalking or if she just didn’t want to risk coming across me.
“So have you or not?”
He shook his head. “Every day that goes by makes it harder. I don’t want to face her right now.”
“Have you ever thought about how she must feel?” I sat my bowl down on the pile of dirty dishes and continued talking as Fischer leaned up to face me. “It’s for the best. You know that. If you explained to her why you did it, I think she would be more understanding. She wants the best for you, truly. She’s probably so hurt now that it’s been so long and you’ve avoided her.”
“What does it matter to you how she feels? You hurt her, too, so don’t give me that shit. She’s really probably more heartbroken by you than me.”
A small hole opened up in my chest as he spoke. I knew he was wrong, but the idea of hurting Karina and betraying her trust had been feasting on my corpse for the last two weeks.
“This isn’t a competition of who is worse. We both fucked up, but you’re her brother—her twin brother—and I’m just a guy she halfway dated and hates now.”
He stood all the way up. “Bullshit. You know you’re not just a guy to her. We should have told her, and you’re right, I’ll be the one who has to face her and deal with her pain and
you’ll be able to run off to Atlanta soon. I’ll have to see the disappointment in her face and you’ll never see her face again.”
I reached for his shirt and balled my fist around the fabric. His blue eyes went wide and he raised his hands up in the air.
“Sorry. Fuck. Sorry, Martin. I just feel like shit about it and am pushing it onto you. I’ll go to her house tomorrow. I don’t know how much longer I can avoid her anyway. It’s killing me day by day.” He sighed and I let go of him.
“I don’t think just showing up at her place without a warning is a good idea.”
“If I call her, she might be working or not answer. She’s texted me too many times for me to say sorry over the phone. I need to just face the music.” His voice was shaking, and I knew even though his words sounded like he barely cared, he absolutely did, and hated disappointing her. We had that in common.
As selfish as it was, I felt like I knew Karina better than he did, which I knew wasn’t true, but it made something inside of me feel satisfied or fulfilled. Like the time I spent with her wasn’t a dream or a waste of time. I would rather have felt that feeling at least once in my pathetic life than never at all, and since people like me didn’t get a fairy-tale ending, I would take what I could get and leave it at that. I was already pushing my luck by having someone like Karina give me the time of day, and now that time had run out and I needed to get over her. Having her brother around me constantly didn’t help me forget her, but maybe that’s why I had decided to spend my energy helping him make his life better. I couldn’t do that for her, so maybe doing it for him would help me repent for some of my sins? I needed to work on controlling my temper, and I knew my anger wasn’t directed toward Fischer, just like his anger wasn’t directed toward me. We both hated ourselves. That was the thing we had most in common.
© Anna Todd, 2023