Specific moments tend to embed onto your psyche. They are so traumatic, so painful, they instantly imprint onto your long-term memory.
This was destined to be one of those moments. If I survived. If my ability to breathe returned.
I clenched the doorknob as my brother scrambled to cover his naked ass with a pillow. He swore and told me to get out.
Holy shit, nothing will ever be the same.
Hope, the woman whose mouth was inhaling my brother’s cock, scrambled to retrieve her clothing from the floor. Her face was tomato-red. It should be. She’s engaged to Graham Morgan, my brother’s best friend.
Or she was.
“My lesson was canceled.” My voice was strangled as were my insides.
“You should have said something,” Jack said in a tone he’d used once when we were much younger and I’d caught him downloading porn on my computer.
That memory was also embedded.
I’m not a prude, but certain societal codes of behavior should be adhered to. One: Not violating my computer or—ew—my room because you’re grounded from the Internet.
“I’m sorry—” I stopped; I wasn’t sorry. I was numb. I waited for Jack to break out in a smile. It had to be a prank. Graham and Hope’s wedding invitation had arrived two days ago. Mine was secured on the refrigerator at Dad’s place with a heart magnet. We were in Aspen to celebrate the pending nuptials as well as my graduation and Jack’s promotion. “What are you doing, Jack?”
He shook his head without answering, and I pitied him. He usually wasn’t an asshole, at least not as assholey as he appeared with a pillow clutched to his genitals as if his nudity was the big issue.
Clothing in hand, Hope dashed from the living room, down the hall, and to the master bedroom. I wanted to escape, too, so no judgment on my behalf.
“Hope,” Jack bellowed.
She didn’t stop.
He grabbed his clothing and charged after her.
A cold burst of air brought a flurry of snow through the opened door. It instantly melted on the dark wooden floor of the luxury chalet Graham had rented.
We had spent weekends in Aspen, although never in a place so nice. During high school, Jack and I had scraped our pennies and rented the best discounted rooms we could afford. Graham had joined us, but we’d refused his money. He’d never talked much about his home life, but we knew it wasn’t good. Eventually, he’d stopped arguing and simply swore he’d get a huge NFL contract and repay us someday.
He finally had, and the expense of this chalet probably balanced the account.
On autopilot, I closed the door, unzipped my jacket, and hung it in the closet. I peeled off my boots and neatly placed them on the mat. I should have sought the warmth of the blazing fire in the stone hearth, but I still had the visual of my brother and Hope sprawled in front of it.
I shook my head.
That’s an image that can’t be unseen.
The kitchen seemed like a safe destination. I poured a glass of Merlot, and even though I wasn’t a drinker, I finished it off in one long gulp.
This can’t be happening. I gripped the counter behind me. Graham had trust issues. Jack and I were the only family he had. Jack, how could you do something this stupid? This cruel?
I poured another glass and downed half. My stomach churned in warning.
Voices in the living room forced me to abandon my wine and walk toward them. Although I couldn’t make out what they were saying at first, they were obviously arguing.
Hope dropped her luggage in the foyer and retrieved her coat from the closet. I stood, silently observing. “I have to get out of here,” she said desperately. When she realized I was there, she said, “I’m sorry. Graham is on his way. I should tell him not to come, but—” She covered her face with her hands. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
I might have felt sorry for her if I weren’t still trying to erase a certain image from my mind. It was still disgustingly vivid. Jack wrapped his arms around her, an act that angered me.
“You’re upset. You can’t drive like this,” Jack pleaded.
“I have to. I need to think. This isn’t me. I don’t do things like this.” She looked for confirmation from me, but I looked away. I hadn’t known her long enough to refute or support her claim, nor did I want to be put in that position.
“It’s going to be okay. I’ll drive you,” Jack said, as he cupped her face between his hands.
My voice finally functioned. “What about Graham?”
Jack turned to acknowledge my presence. I expected him to be angry with me, but his face held a pained expression instead. “I’ll drive Hope to the airport then come back. He’s still a few hours out.”
“I should be the one to tell him,” Hope said, although she didn’t look or sound convinced.
“No, we’ve been friends our whole lives. I’ll tell him,” Jack said firmly.
How noble of him. I wanted to slap him. His declaration had the opposite effect on Hope. She melted against him, and I wanted to vomit. There were many words I could have let fly, but none would have helped the situation.
I turned to walk away.
“Lauren,” Jack said as he approached me. Whispering to keep Hope from hearing, he said, “Don’t say anything to Graham if he beats me here. Tell him we were out when you arrived.”
“I won’t lie to him,” I said forcefully, brave from my wine buzz.
“Then drive home now.”
My mouth gaped. I didn’t know this Jack. “What if Graham gets here before you? Don’t you think he’ll worry if no one is here or answering his calls?”
The door opened, and Hope slipped out.
I started to tell him what I thought of his plan, but he walked away.
He grabbed his coat and swung the door open. “Listen, I fucked up. You don’t need to tell me how badly. Don’t say anything to Graham, okay? I’ll make this right. I swear.”
He slammed the door before I had a chance to agree or tell him to go to hell.
I grabbed my cell and brought up Graham’s number. He deserved to know what had happened. He deserved a chance to talk it out with Hope if that was what he wanted.
I stopped in front of the fire without calling him. I paused, trying to understand my feelings. My anger had dissolved; I felt relieved—almost happy.
That was as unnerving as seeing Jack and Hope together.
Graham was my honorary brother from another mother, my protector, and even my confidant. Jack’s betrayal would cut Graham deeply, and my heart should be breaking for him.
Leaving my phone on the mantel, I went to my room to pack. No matter who told Graham, chances were he would hate all of us, including me, simply for bearing witness. He’d cut members of his family out of his life for that very crime.
I tried imagining my life without Graham but couldn’t.
Confused and disgusted with myself, I transferred my belongings into my luggage, pausing when I saw my reflection in the bureau mirror. I told myself my feelings were irrelevant. Graham had never looked at me the way he looked at Hope.
I wasn’t in her league. On my best day, I was cute. On my worst, I was a slightly overweight, bespectacled nerd with awkward social skills.
Many people spend their entire lives trying to stand out. I only wanted to blend in. Strategically, I had learned to keep the majority of my thoughts to myself. Sharing them had never made my life better.
At age seven I pinpointed the error in a cartoon character’s attempt at Fermat’s Last Theorem, a problem that had taken mathematicians until 1994 to solve, and sought to discuss it. Not having the mathematical vocabulary to properly express how I would have solved it, I’d asked my teacher, and was instantly transferred to a school for the gifted.
I graduated from high school at fourteen, had an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics by seventeen, and my PhD in condensed matter physics by twenty. Whether it was what I wanted or what I was told I should want, I was still unsure. When I requested a year off to find myself, I was directed to therapy. Some good came from that experience. I learned to value my emotions even when they didn’t match the expected. Feelings weren’t wrong, actions were.
I also met my best friend, Kelley. She was interning at the practice where I paid for two sessions, debated the basic principles of psychology for two more, then on my clinician’s prodding, went on to formally study it.
In retrospect, the suggestion to get my own degree if I thought I knew so much might have been sarcastic, but I wrote a dissertation to support my views and had an additional diploma a year later. Unlike my clinician, Kelley found my questions invigorating. She defined friendship as two people bringing out the best in each other. We were still close even though she had gone off to college in California to finish her studies, leaving us to communicate only by phone for now. Besides Graham, she was the only person who accepted me as I was.
On impulse, I retrieved my phone from the mantel and called her. No answer. I checked the time. It was early enough that she might be in class. I left her a voice message—a long, detailed update that included a trip to the kitchen for another glass of Merlot.