“It certainly wasn’t easy breaking your heart.”
The room was small, and it smelled awful – like a campfire, so smoky. I coughed, trying to clear my lungs and my nose of the smell, but it was no use. I would smell like burnt wood for days.
I stared out the window at the town that was once ours – all lit up with twinkle lights for the yearly end of summer festival. We were Anders and Ellis, two of Marnie’s worst cases. We were madly in love, so blissed out on one another that the world outside didn’t exist. We thought we were invincible, thought nothing could touch us.
“We were just two dumb kids.”
No one ever thought we’d make it out of this town alive, and now here we were: standing in an old dusty room in the back of the old church finally talking about what broke us, what made us no longer invincible, what finally touched us.
I stared at the boy I once loved, now a man who I still loved more than words could describe. So much had changed about him – his once lanky frame now muscled and bulky – and yet so much hadn’t changed – his black hair still pulled back from his face, his corkscrew curls looking more like dreads because they were so thick. He was still Anders. He was still that boy, but he’d grown. And I was still Ellis.
But I’d grown too.
He sat down on the floor, stretching his legs in front of him. “We’re going to be here awhile,” he said to me, patting the space next to him.
I stared at the door that had shut and locked behind us and sighed. I folded my arms over my chest. “I’d rather stand.”
“Still the same Ellis.”
“Still the same Anders.”
He rolled his eyes at me and directed his attention to the scene outside. The town was deserted, and neither of us had the presence of mind to bring our phones with us to the room that held the sparklers for the Firefly Ceremony. We really weren’t getting out of here. I could have relented and been nice to him.
But I really was still the same Ellis.
“It wasn’t easy breaking your heart.”
“You said that already,” I told him.
“I thought it needed to be said again,” he responded, his voice low and husky, that same timbre that used to sing me to sleep when we were on opposite ends of the continent, exploring our respective dreams – dreams that we’d eventually achieved.
Dreams that eventually broke us.
“We were two dumb kids.”
“You said that already,” he told me, his voice mocking, issuing a challenge.
“I thought it needed to be said again,” I told him, arching an eyebrow at him.
He smirked. I smirked. He looked at me. I looked at him. It was a game of ‘blink’ and I was going to win.
He shook his head. “You could look for the sparklers while you’re up there.”
“You could have looked for the sparklers before you sat down.”
“Are you going to try and clap back at me every time I speak?”
“Are you going to try and tell me what I should be doing?” I asked. “You lost that right a long time ago.”
“I thought I apologized for that,” he said, running his hand over the back of his neck, refusing to look me in the eye.
“You said it wasn’t easy breaking my heart, Anders,” I told him. “That’s not an apology. It’s an explanation.”
“What do you want me to say, Ellis?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.” A pause. “I’m going to look for the sparklers.”
I stepped over him, making my way to the filing cabinet in the corner. I had no idea what purpose it served, since it had no drawers. There was a box at the bottom, and I squatted down to look inside. It was filled with boxes of sparklers.
“That was fast,” I said.
He was so close, his voice enveloping me. I stopped, frozen in place. He was right behind me, but he was all over me. He was suddenly in everything again, the same way he was in high school, when I was just a girl madly in love with a boy who was just as broken as me.
“Ye—“ I cleared my throat. “Yeah,” I said. I took a deep breath and stood slowly. I turned, holding out the box of sparklers to him. “Right here.”
“Right,” he said, studying me. His eyes bore into me, that same icy blue that I could get lost in. He took the box from me and looked away, ending whatever moment we’d been having. He walked away from me and I took a deep breath, hoping to rid myself of whatever feelings I was having, but all I got was smoky burnt wood.
I preferred the smell of him.
I looked at him, his back to me as he stared out at the town, the bright light of the moon drenching him in white.
I leaned against the wall. “For?”
He turned, and that was the first time I saw it – regret, or hurt, or some combination of the two. It was a new look on him, the boy with the stiff upper lip and the man with the Cheshire cat grin. He looked down, inhaling a shaky breath.
I pushed myself off the wall and tentatively took a step towards him. He looked up. “Elle?”
“What are you sorry for?” I asked again.
He hesitated, looking between me and the door behind me, still locked, still taunting us, making us share this cramped, suffocating space. I cast a glance behind me at the door, then looked at him again. He took a step forward, and so did I. I took a step forward, and so did he. It was a dance of sorts, but neither of us knew the steps.
“What are you sorry for?”
“Everything,” he said then, and he closed the distance between us and melded his lips to mine.
So many memories flashed through my head. I saw us kissing for the first time in this very spot when we were just fourteen – two scared kids who didn’t know the first thing about love. I saw us sitting on the bench outside of the church holding hands and talking about the future. I saw us saying good-bye at the airport, all tears and blotched faces, promising we’d love each other forever.
And I saw him saying good-bye to me, late one night on a sidewalk in New York City, telling me that our lives were too different, and that he couldn’t love me the way I needed to be loved.
I pushed him away, taking several deep breaths. All I could smell was the smoke from the charred wall from the fire that I’d started when I was twelve and my mom left home again, left me wondering if anyone would ever love me enough not to leave me. It had been over a decade and they still hadn’t replaced that wall, likely wanting it to serve as a bitter reminder for me that I was a screwed up person with a screwed up life.
“I can’t,” I finally said, my heart thumping in my ears. I closed my eyes, tried to silence it, tried to calm myself down, but it was no use.
We jumped apart then as Darcy threw the door to the room open. “You guys like, disappeared, and…” She stopped, looking between us. “What happened?”
I froze again, unsure what to say, how to explain what really happened here, in this room that held so much of my own story. Did I tell her? She was my best friend, she knew about my story with Anders. She knew everything about us.
Which told me she wouldn’t react well if I told her what had happened just two minutes before she’d opened the door.
“We came in here to look for sparklers,” Anders said, his voice booming, so loud that I flinched. “Forgot our phones out there, the door got stuck so we’ve been waiting for someone to realize we were gone.”
“Oh, we noticed,” Tyson said as he poked his head inside the room.
Here we were again: Marnie’s kids. The ones who’d made it, made something of ourselves. The silence was deafening – her absence again falling over us like a heavy blanket. I was suffocating.
“We should get out of here,” I finally said. I pointed to the box under the window sill. “Sparklers are there. They’re too heavy. I can’t carry them.”
“I’ll get them,” Anders said, his voice dismissive, detached again. I recognized it from the night he walked away.
“Let’s go Ellis,” Darcy said, holding her hand out to me. I took it willingly and followed her, grabbing my phone off of the pew at the front as we made our way outside. The town was still lit up, all twinkly and calm – a stark contrast to the room I’d just been in.
Darcy and I stopped outside of the church as Anders and Tyson caught up to us. “I need to talk to Ellis.”
Darcy looked between the two of us, presumably looking for approval from me. I shrugged, but secretly hoped she’d stay.
“Alright, Tyson, let’s give these two a minute.” Darcy looped her arm through Tyson’s and dragged him to the gazebo where people were finally gathering. I watched them twirl around in the middle of the street, still the same two carefree souls I’d met on a cold April day when Marnie took me in.
I felt my heart lurch at the thought of her, at the thought of that day, when I first met Anders, too, and how much had changed in the ten years since.
I bristled at the words, finally looking up at Anders. “What are you sorry for, Anders? And don’t give me that ‘everything’ nonsense again. Tell me, specifically, what you are apologizing for.”
He stared out at the gazebo, at our adopted siblings still dancing in the middle of the street, at the town as they gathered underneath the twinkle lights, at the big bright moon above us. I looked out at all of it with him, waiting for his response, sure he’d write me off again, try and get a pass with a vague answer.
He took a deep breath, and I waited. I waited. And waited. And waited some more.
“For not loving you,” he said, finally. “For not telling you sooner that I didn’t love you.”
His words, when he finally spoke them, cut me to the core, made me wish I’d never asked him to explain. They cut me so deep that I could feel them in my soul, right in my heart, slashing it to pieces the same way he did that night.
“For breaking your heart.”
And I felt my heart break all over again.