“Jace punched him in the courtyard after Cole dragged you off,” Quinn piped in.

“Quinn, don’t tell her that!” he said, looking sheepish.

“Guys, you can’t be mad at him. This was my fault from the very beginning. I let him convince me that I could handle a relationship when I knew all along that I would be terrible at it. I just proved myself right in the end. At least it wasn’t years down the road. I’m just trying to survive this the best way I know how,” I said sternly.

“Please don’t drink yourself into a coma again, Ems,” Quinn whined.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll never drink again, don’t worry about that. If I hadn’t in the first place the other night, I’d be sitting here cheering for my boyfriend right now. Instead,” I pointed behind me, “they’re cheering for him.” Quinn and Jace looked back to see Rachel and her annoying crew screaming Jax’s name. “Apparently, word gets out fast.”

Jace stood up and grabbed me; he lifted me into a giant bear hug in front of everyone. My feet just dangled down along his legs. It was weird because his body felt like Jaxon’s. I had to keep reminding myself not to wrap my legs around his waist and squeeze back.

“It’s not just your fault, Emmy. Don’t even let yourself think that. Please don’t let this cause you to close yourself off again. You are the greatest friend that’s a girl I’ve met. If Jaxon doesn’t come to his damn senses, then some lucky guy out there will be thankful to be loved by you one day,” he whispered in my ear. These boys were way too charming for their own good.

“Thanks, Jace, but I know I can’t do this again.” He gave me another squeeze and looked sadly into my eyes.

When someone shouted for us to sit down, he placed me back in my seat. I looked out onto the field to see Jaxon staring right at us. His eyes screamed, “Mine. She’s mine and I’ll kill anyone who touches her.” But his actions said, “Just take her, I don’t want her anymore.” I turned to look somewhere else; I couldn’t focus on what he was thinking about. I needed to remember that I couldn’t think about him at all. I concentrated on watching Cole and cheering him on when he caught the ball. See, I could be perfectly normal.

By the end of the game, we had won and surprisingly, Cole had scored the winning touchdown. I’d never seen Quinn jump up and down so hard. When the final whistle blew, Cole came barreling toward the stands. He hopped over the barrier with ease and scooped Quinn up into his arms. Their faces were attached to each other for the next few minutes without either one coming up for air. When he finally placed her down, he came over and hugged me as hard as he could. His excitement was infectious and I tried to soak it in.

“Congrats, Cole, I’ll remember this for at least the next fifty years. Thanks for making it worth it for me to come!” I yelled over the crowd’s cheers.

He turned and gave Jace the brotherly hug/pat-on-the-back thing. I couldn’t stop myself from looking out at the field one last time and searching for Jaxon. He wasn’t celebrating or talking to anyone. I watched as he slowly walked toward the locker room. By the looks of him, you would have thought we had lost the game.

Cole asked all three of us to wait for him while he changed out of his gear and showered. I really just wanted to get home and back to my bed. I felt like I had done my friendship duty by coming, now I needed to go cry some more in the privacy of my room. I’d seen Jaxon way too many times today already. I could feel the waves of pain getting closer and closer to bursting through. When Cole came out of the dressing room, Jaxon was walking right behind him. Both of them looked incredibly handsome, freshly showered, and wearing their team polo shirts. Jaxon had thrown on his black ball cap over his wet hair. He knew I loved that cap on him. I couldn’t stand here any longer.

“I’m out, I have plans. See you later, Quinny. Congrats guys,” I said while walking away.

“Emerson, just stay, I’m leaving. No one here wants to talk to me anyway,” that intoxicating voice said.

I turned around to face the group, while continuing my backward retreat. “Like I told them earlier, this was all my fault; they don’t have any reason to be mad at you. I hope you guys have a nice night.”

“It’s okay if we hang out in the same group. We were friends first, you know.”

“It might be easy for you, but it’s almost impossible for me.” I continued my retreat and then turned to shout one last thing to him, “It’s Em, by the way; Emerson doesn’t exist anymore.” Right before I turned around I saw his mouth gape open with surprise at my words.

I walked as fast as I possibly could, while still appearing normal. When I disappeared into the crowd and knew he couldn’t see me anymore, I took off running for my car. When I reached it and threw myself into the driver’s seat, I laid my head down onto the steering wheel. I took off my stupid boots and threw them into the backseat. All the pain from seeing him started flowing from my eyes. A few moments later, there was a gentle tapping on my window. For the second time this week, I found myself wishing that Jaxon hadn’t come to see my misery, and then opening my eyes to find Devon.

I opened my car door so he wouldn’t have to talk to me through my window. He squatted and sat down on the running board of my car, facing me.

“Still upset from the other night when we went out, Ems?” he asked.

“Nah, I’ve just had reality thrown in my face since then, that’s all.”

“Want to talk about it?” he asked kindly.

“I think I’ve done enough damage by running off with you once already, Devon. But I did want to thank you for watching over me that night, and making sure I got home safely. That was generous of you.”

“Where’s the superstar boyfriend?” he asked, looking around. When I winced in pain, his eyes widened a bit. “Wait… he didn’t break up with you for hanging out with me, did he?”

“That wasn’t the only reason, it was mostly a compilation of all my fuck-ups. Apparently running away from your problems isn’t the right answer.” I laid my forehead back down on the steering wheel. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear about ‘The Great Em Embarrassment’ in the courtyard. At least that’s what I call it. I made a fool out myself. For a guy. Who would have guessed?”

“I heard you guys had a pretty loud fight, but I didn’t realize…” He was quiet for a few moments, “Well, he’s just a douche and the biggest idiot I’ve never even met.”

At that exact moment I spotted Jaxon and Jace walking across the parking lot toward the truck and they were both looking right at us. I laid my head down on the steering wheel and groaned. Perfect, just freaking perfect. When I looked back up they were both already inside the cab of the truck and backing out.

“Thanks, Devon.” I offered him a weak smile. “I think I’m going to head on home though.”

“Alright. Well, you have my number if you ever need to vent. I’m heading back up north tomorrow. It was good seeing you, even under these circumstances.” With my goodbyes, I closed my door and drove home to my bed.

I was proud of myself for not skipping out on any classes. If there was anything I wouldn’t forgive myself for, it would be failing out of my junior year of college because I broke up with my first boyfriend. I was able to get seats in the back of the class away from Jaxon in our shared classes. I didn’t meet up with Jace anymore after English, nor did I join them in the cafeteria after I noticed Jaxon sitting with them the day after the championship game. That was an awkward moment because as soon as I saw him, I back-pedaled out of the room as fast as I could and I know they all saw me do it.

I ended up finding this great big tree on the edge of campus that was an ideal place for eating lunch. Or in my case, just staring off into space not wanting any human contact and the occasional crying, although I’m not too proud about that. Julie, Jaxon’s mom, attempted to reach out and contact me a couple times after she found out what had happened. I tried to be polite and talk to her, but it was just too hard so I always found some excuse to get off the phone.

Ellie and Charles ended up going with me to the lawyer’s office to read over the contract for the account my parents had set up in my name. Charles was skeptical that it was real, and therefore demanded that he join in on the meeting so he could read over the fine print. The account ended up being legitimate, and I was basically set for the rest of my life. I guess I had my parents to thank for that.

I was still having a hard time dealing with the fact that I’d just spent the last six years of my life mad at the very parents who did everything to make my life better. My mom had always told me I should try for a career that makes me happy, not one that was all about the money. When I first started becoming interested in humanitarian journalism, I knew I wouldn’t be making the best living. Thanks to my parents, I wouldn’t have to worry about making my rent or any other payments while I was out traveling the world.

Almost a month had gone by and I was still surviving. I was almost back to a bearable state; I didn’t cry as often as I used to. He would never be out of my heart though. I’d always think of him as the strongest person to actually break through my walls. Why had I been so stupid? How could I have thought it was okay just to leave Jaxon that night, with Devon of all people? He was the best thing that had happened to me in years, and I had just walked away from him, even if only for a moment.

I’d become an expert at avoiding Jaxon and all of the places I knew he would be. Surprisingly, we never ran into each other at home either. Quinn would hang out with the guys at their apartment and every once in a while, Jace and Cole would come over to our place to hang out. I was sad for our little group; we had been so close and then I had to go and screw everything up. Now, we couldn’t even hang out together, all at the same time. I never asked about Jaxon and I never searched him out in crowds. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle seeing him with a new girlfriend when he eventually started dating again.

Meanwhile, I was also having an eternal struggle with myself. I couldn’t be Emerson anymore because she would forever belong to Jaxon. I also couldn’t ever go back to sleeping around with every guy like Em did. I needed an in-between. Quinn and Cole had finally gotten me to go out again to a few parties. Once all the guys found out that Jaxon and I were no longer together, it took them a good two weeks to realize I wouldn’t be going upstairs with them anymore. I honestly couldn’t see myself being with anyone like that, I’d already had the best, and the rest would be second-rate. I was thankful that I didn’t ever see him at these parties, because I wouldn’t be able to handle them if he did.

It was hard enough staring at the back of his head in our journalism courses. Students would come up and talk to him; he even had two new girls that sat on either side of him, but I never really saw him actively engaging with them.

One day, as the professor was dismissing us and trying to add on more reading material, I watched as Tatum Johnson stood up in her seat next to him and kissed him on the cheek. Right then, I thought I was going to be sick all over my desk. I scrabbled to push my papers and books into my bag. When I stood up, I saw that Jaxon was staring right at me. I slammed my chair in and darted out the door.

I ran across campus. I couldn’t leave because I still had another class and Quinn had the car today, so I couldn’t go hide in there. I realized where I was subconsciously going, to my tree. I wish I had found this tree earlier in my time here at school. It was peaceful to lie under and just look up at the swirling of branches and intertwined leaves. It was so dense that the sun couldn’t seep through, which created this beautiful glow around the outer edges of the leaves. This was the perfect place to hide and calm down so that I didn’t I hurl in front of all my classmates. The girth of the tree trunk was wide; I could sit up against it on one side and no one would be able to see me. I always sat on the side opposite from campus; I didn’t want anyone to come bother me.

A few times Quinn and Cole had asked where I went for lunch and if they could come join me, but I just told them I went to study hall. I’m pretty sure Quinn went to check on me one day, because later, she asked which study hall I was in. I eventually told her I had found a place to hide, but I haven’t been able to tell them where I go because this is my happy place. I like coming here alone.

I sat on the roots of the tree with my knees pulled up to my chest and my face in-between them. I closed my eyes, pulled in long deep breaths, and released them slowly, willing myself not to cry. I knew this was coming; I told myself he would eventually get a girlfriend again. Warning yourself about something and then having it actually happen is a whole different story. At least I didn’t see her full on kiss him, it had only been a cheek kiss. It could have been so much worse.

Startled, I jolted backward and knocked my head on the trunk of the tree, once again embarrassing myself in front of Jaxon. I laid my head back down on my knees. Maybe if I keep my eyes closed tightly, he would go away.

“Oh shit, sorry! Is your head okay?” He placed his strong, warm hand on the back of my head.

I winced and moved out of his hold. “Jaxon, please don’t. I don’t know how you even found me here,” I said into my legs.

“I know that you always sit here,” he replied, crouching down in front of me. When I finally looked up at him confused, he continued, “I’ve been sitting under that tree over there,” he pointed across the lawn to another tree about fifty yards away, “for awhile now. One day I noticed you walking over here and hiding behind this one. I started coming out here every day to watch you sit here. I just needed to know if you were okay. I hate when I see you cry over here by yourself. I almost told Quinn once where you were so she could comfort you, but then realized you probably come here to be alone.”