snapshot 2

“I get it, Shiloh,” Jude said with a sigh. “You’ve been through too much shit. You’ve seen everything there is to see and been fed every line in the book. You have absolutely no reason to want to be involved here.”

“You’ve got that right,” I muttered.

He stopped then, kneeling down so he was eye level with me. Tangling his fingers in my hair, he took a deep breath. I waited, taking a moment to consider how we’d even gotten to this place; how far we’d come in so little time.

My history teacher had saved my life – literally. I knew for certain, without a doubt, that if he’d never come in my life I wouldn’t be here. I probably would have found myself in a body bag, given my penchant for making sarcastic remarks to my father. He thought I was out with Carmine now; Carmine thought I was at the library.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” I said to him, finally meeting his gaze.

He scrunched his forehead, confused by my sudden change of mood. I was still mad, but I needed him to know that I was thankful, too. Sometimes I hated being a girl. My moods were all over the map. Jude was a saint, though, and never complained about it. He kept his eyes trained on me, waiting for me to finish my thought.

“Let’s face it, the night my dad hit me was the best night of our lives,” I said. “You took me in. I fell for you because I’d never been on the receiving end of genuine love and affection. It’s my fault, Jude, and I accept it. I just wish you could have told me before I had gotten in this deep.”

“It’s not like that, Shy—”

I placed my fingers on his lips, silencing him. “I’m still talking. I think you owe me this much, Jude.”

He nodded, untangling his fingers from my hair then. I clasped our hands together then, holding tightly to this final moment of togetherness. I knew once we were done talking he’d leave. I’d see him in class, sure, but aside from turning in my papers and my class participation, this was it.

“I fell for you, Jude,” I said. “And that’s the truth. I fell for you because you were the only person who got me, in spite of the fact that my walls were up. You stuck with me when things got difficult. You’ve shown me that my life can be so much more than taking over the business when I graduate.”

I sighed, allowing my words to sink in. He waited still, knowing I only had a bit more to say. I was struck then by how well he knew me. He knew me and yet he’d rejected me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. As I said, he was my history teacher. We’d crossed a line, and obviously he knew that it was better to retreat than to keep going and risk damaging his career.

“Thank you,” I said. “I guess that’s all I really can say. Thank you, Jude. You’ve done so much for me. I wish we could be together, I do; I wish we could just run off and not worry about fathers and boyfriends and betrothals. But I get it. I’m not good for you, and you need to look out for yourself. So… I guess all I’m going to say is thank you.”

I released his hands from mine and stood up, willing myself not to cry. It had been a rough three and a half months. I’d made it, though, and this newfound strength was something that I knew would carry me forward beyond high school; beyond Jude.

I made my way to his door, hoping to get out of his apartment as quickly as possible. Tears started streaming down my face at that point. It had taken a lot out of me, finally admitting my feelings for this man; but it was a step in the right direction for me. It was a step that I needed to take.

“Shiloh.”

I stopped at the sound of his voice and hurriedly wiped away my tears. I turned to face him. The look on his face nearly broke my heart.

“Please,” he said. “Wait.”

He walked quickly toward me, grabbing me and pulling me toward him. He tangled his fingers in my hair once more. He was saying good-bye. This was his way of letting me go, and I would indulge him because it allowed me one more time to be close to him.

“Don’t leave,” he whispered. “Don’t leave and take my whole world with you.”

I opened my eyes to meet his. I knew he could tell how confused I was. He smiled, resting his forehead against mine. He clasped our hands together, giving mine a gentle squeeze.

“I can feed you every line in the book,” he said. “I can tell you that you complete me and that you’re my whole world – which I’ve already done. You aren’t going to believe me. And I get that. But don’t think for one second that I’m not in this, Shiloh.”

I gasped. “But—”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to just quit my job so we can be together, but that would require me finding work elsewhere,” he continued. “And I can’t leave you, Shiloh. I can’t leave you because I’m in this. You’ve got me under your spell, and I’m freely admitting that I’m trapped.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” I told him. “You’ve seen how easily I get jealous and how quickly I convince myself that this isn’t worth the hurt. I walk away because I can’t risk getting hurt again, Jude.”

“I don’t care, Shiloh,” he replied. “I’m in this. And if you think for one minute that I haven’t been attached to you, you’re severely mistaken. I’m attached. I’m here; and an army couldn’t drive me away from you. Please… stay.”

I smiled at him, at his words that he was now freely admitting. It felt like I was floating. He’d finally come clean – finally told me what I’d been waiting three months to hear. I threw my arms around his neck, allowing him to hold me close.

We knew the consequences of our actions wouldn’t be pretty if and when my father found out.

I didn’t care, though. I allowed myself to fall deeper, right there and then, because for whatever reason, this man wanted me. And this moment, right here in his arms, was the most whole I’d felt in years.

“I’ll stay,” I whispered to him.

And I decided at that moment that come hell, high water, armies, fathers, school boards, or boyfriends, I’d stay. No matter how rough it got, I would stay. He was the calm – the eye. No matter how the storm raged, I knew if I had him, we could weather it together.

snapshot.

“It would seem that we’re after the same girl.”

I turned to see where that voice had come from. I already knew who it was. I’d been embroiled in a bitter battle with him since the arrival of my ex-girlfriend in this microscopically small town. Granted, he hadn’t known until recently that we were fighting over the same girl, but I digress.

“It would appear.”

“That’s all you have to say?” Kelly asked. “You sleep with my girlfriend while she’s still with me and all you have to say is, ‘It would appear?’ You’re not a very bright person, are you, Justin?”

I shrugged, gesturing to the beach. I figured if he and I were going to have it out, we needed to walk. It would keep him calm. This I knew from our time spent in the same unit.

“She’s better than you.”

“I can’t argue with that,” I told him.

He was baiting me. I knew he was baiting me. He was right, though. Ella Jameson had always been better than me. It was what had ultimately led to our demise: I had felt that she was too good for a life with me, so I ended things; and I had regretted that decision ever since.

“She needs something more than a life with a man who’s never going to be home,” he said to me, baiting me again.

“You’ve dated this girl for fifteen minutes and now you’re suddenly an expert on what she does or does not need?” I asked. “Kelly, I made that mistake a long time ago. Mark my words, making decisions for that girl does not end well.”

“You’re an expert on Ella Jameson?” He asked me. “You’re an expert on her because you dated her five years ago and now you’re back in her life?”

“I’m not back in her life,” I said to him. “She made it clear that she needed time, and I intend to give her the time she needs. But I do know that making decisions for her doesn’t end well. Kelly, you can’t assume she needs one thing – or person – over another.”

“And you can’t tell me that you’re what’s best for her,” he countered.

“I’m not saying I am,” I responded. “What I am saying, is that she is the only person who knows what’s best for her. You and I are not the people to make those types of decisions for her.”

He nodded and we continued walking. We were nearing mine and Ella’s spot, and I hesitated to continue walking. I just wanted the conversation to be over, really. I stopped walking.

“What do you want with her, Justin?” He asked. “Do you want to be with her? Or is this one of those times when you think you want something but you really just want one more time with it before you get it out of your system?”

I had to give it to the kid – he had been around when I tried to quit smoking. I’d been off of nicotine for three months when I had a craving for a cigarette. That one cigarette had been the last one I smoked, though.

“What do you want with her, Justin?” He asked again.

I shrugged, shaking my head. “I want to be with her, Kelly. You weren’t there to see how much better she made me when we were together the first time around—”

“No, but I did see you when you two were together the first time around,” he interjected. “You were happy. She made you a better person. Every single one of us saw that. But you ended things. You claimed that she was a bother.”

“I said those things because I didn’t want to admit what was really going on inside my head,” I explained. “I made the decision that she didn’t need to be dragged down with me. Like I said, it was the worst decision I’ve ever made.”

It was getting dark. I knew Ella would be expecting me soon. We had a standing Tuesday night together and I needed to get ready for that. This conversation needed to happen, though – if for no other reason than to make Kelly see that Ella and I weren’t a brand new thing. We had history – and it was that history that we shared that made it so hard for either of us to walk away.

“I’m going to fight for her,” Kelly said then. “I’m not going to cower away just because you think that your shared history is more important than what Ella and I have.”

“I expect you to,” I replied. “You wouldn’t be the guy I met in that shithole if you backed away quietly.”

“Good,” he said. “I love her. I’m going to fight for her.”

We were quiet for a second, each contemplating how to win the girl of our dreams over, I suppose. I watched the waves rolling in; thinking about a similar evening nearly five years ago.

“I have to go,” Kelly told me. “I told Ella I’d meet her in the morning for coffee.”

“I have to go meet her for our Tuesday night movie,” I replied, hoping this would serve as a reminder that I, too, would be fighting for this girl.

“Yeah,” he said. “So, I guess I’ll see you around, Stetson.”

I nodded, allowing him to move past me to walk away. “See ya, Palmer.”

I stood there, watching the waves. The sun was setting over the water. It had been nearly five years ago that Ella had snapped a picture of me standing in the same water. She’d been so embarrassed when I’d caught her in the act.  I think I loved her even then.

“Palmer,” I called out.

He turned around, raising an eyebrow. We had nothing left to say to each other, really. We’d hashed out what we could. Anything else would just add insult to injury, but I needed to get this out.

“I love her, too, you know,” I said, offering that as the only form of explanation I could give for my actions over the last six months.

He nodded in response and turned around, stalking back over to where he’d parked his car. I stood there, watching the sunset. It really was a sight to see.

“Hey, you.”

Broken from my thoughts, I turned at the sound of her voice. Ella Jameson was another sight to see.

“Hey,” I greeted. “What are you doing out here?”

“I thought you might still be here,” she said, tucking herself under my outstretched arm. “I saw you walking out this way earlier when I got home from work.”

I nodded, bringing her closer to me. We hadn’t watched a sunset together since that night that she’d snapped our picture together. Tonight, it seemed, we were bringing everything full circle.

I didn’t know who she’d choose. That was a simple fact I could admit. I didn’t know if she would want to still be with me after the series of fuck-ups I had made over the last five years. I didn’t know if she would choose the safest route and stay with Kelly.

But here and now, with this girl – the girl of my dreams – wrapped tightly in my arms, I didn’t care. She was here, and that was enough for me. For now.