He shrugged. “So let’s make a call. Get you into a program. Doesn’t mean I can’t love you.”
He shook his head, looking to the floor. He closed one eye, the entire conversation more hurtful than he anticipated. “What if falling in love doesn’t break your heart, Ellie? We’re happy when we’re not fighting about being happy.”
“It damn sure is. Every time you think we’re feeling too much or too happy, you tap the brakes.”
“I’m just trying to stop before we start.”
He crawled to his feet. “Before we start? I just told you I’m in love with you!”
“You don’t know that,” I said, picking up my bag and filling it with the few things I owned.
Tyler walked over and grabbed my wrist. “You know how I know? Only love could hurt like this.”
I twisted away from him, thinking about the little boy in the photograph I’d placed on the mantle. “I was honest with you from the beginning. I told you I couldn’t. You said you were fine with it.”
“Well, now I’m not.” He held out his hands, gesturing to the room. “Why did you do all of this? You made us a home just to leave me alone in it?”
“I wanted to you to remember that I’m not completely awful.”
“Why do you fucking care?” he seethed.
Tears spilled over onto my cheeks. “I don’t deserve anything you have to offer, Tyler. I loved being with you while you let me, but anything past this…”
He laughed once in disbelief. “You don’t think you deserve me. Ellie…” He cupped my shoulders. “I’m a dick. Trust me, I’m the one who doesn’t deserve you. But I’m trying. I told myself a few weeks ago when I … that I was going to keep trying until I did deserve you.”
I looked up at him, my eyes narrowed. “When you what?”
He clenched his teeth. “It was after you told me we were just fucking and fighting. I went to a local country bar to meet my brother.”
“So,” he sighed. “A girl showed up. I didn’t know she knew Taylor.”
“I understand. You don’t have to tell me.”
“I didn’t go home with her or anything; I just kissed her. I intended to, though. She was nice to me. I didn’t have to try so fucking hard just to feel rejected.”
I swallowed, angry at how hurt I felt. “It’s fine. She sounds great.”
“We’re all a little fucked up. Not all of us use it to push everyone away.”
I lifted my chin. “So you decided you were in love with me after you tried to take someone home. Indicative of our dysfunction, don’t you think?”
I closed my eyes. “I never meant for us to get in this deep. I never meant for this to mean anything more. Let me leave. One of us has to.”
He dropped his hands from my shoulders, exhaling like the wind had been knocked out of him. “Where?”
He nodded toward the door. “Go.”
I bent down to get one last shirt, and then rushed to the laundry room at the end of the hall and grabbed some folded clothes. My backpack was full, so I began filling a small plastic laundry basket.
I reached for the door, but his hand was on mine. I breathed out a cry, knowing if he said one more word, I would stay.
He touched his cheek to mine, then kissed my temple. “Let me drive you.”
He let go of the knob, waiting for me to look up at him. When I did, his expression crushed me. “You’re still my friend. Let me drive you.”
I nodded, watching him fetch his keys. He led me to his truck, and then I directed him to the magazine. We didn’t speak. Tyler gripped the steering wheel so tight his knuckles turned white.
When I pointed to the back lot, he frowned. “Why did you tell me to come here, Ellie? Jojo doesn’t live here.”
“There’s an apartment above. I have a key,” I said, pulling Tyler’s off my key ring.
He took it, glowering at the metal in his palm. He closed his eyes. “Ellie, I still want you to come to Illinois with me next month.”
I laughed once. “I can’t meet your family, Tyler. Are you insane?”
“I already told Dad you were coming.”
“We can’t just be friends now. Not when I love yous have been thrown around. We can’t go back. You’ve ruined it.”
He managed a small laugh, looking down. “Get the fuck outta my truck, Edson.”
“Done,” I said with a smile. “See you around.”
I fished the key out from the small, fake rock by the back door, and then waved to Tyler as he reversed his truck and pulled away. Once inside, I lugged my bag and the laundry basket up a set of stairs, seeing the perfectly clean apartment. No décor, no candles, no pictures of anyone I loved.
I sat on the floor and sobbed—emotionally exhausted, heartbroken, and relieved.
The only downside to living in a brand-new apartment above the MountainEar for almost nothing was that once fire season was over, Tyler was working down the street every third day. The unseen benefit was that Jojo liked to hang out upstairs after work, and sometimes she’d take me with her to Turk’s—and the owner’s daughter got a nice discount.
We sat at a table in a corner, sipping on Hurricanes in the dim light. Christmas decorations were already hanging from the ceiling, and red and green tinsel garland spiraled around the wooden beams standing at each corner of the bar.
“Good God these are huge drinks,” Jojo said, her words slurred. “I’m only to here,” she said, touching the middle of her glass, “and hammered.”
“The quicker the better,” I said, irritated that I wasn’t even buzzed.
The door blew open, and in walked a line of familiar faces, chatting and smiling.
“What?” Jojo said, turning to see the source of my reaction.
“Liam!” she said with a wide grin.
Liam heard his name and turned toward our table. Jojo waved like an idiot, and he switched direction, heading straight for us.
Jack, Fish, Jubal, Sage, Zeke, Bucky, Sugar, Cat, Taco, Watts, Smitty, Runt, Puddin’, and Pup followed, filing into our booth and pulling up chairs when the space was filled. I was squished between Jojo and Liam, and she looked unhappy he’d gone left instead of right to sit next to her.
“You couldn’t bring the whole crew, huh?” I said, elbowing Liam.
He laughed and rubbed his ribs. “The rest are coming. Except the twins. Taylor stayed in Colorado Springs, and Tyler went home.”
“Fire season’s over. Most of the guys are getting on a plane in the morning,” Jubal said, patting Pup on the shoulder.
They all looked exhausted, skinny, and content.
“Tyler didn’t want to come out on everyone’s last night?” I asked.