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Chapter no 24 – CLARA

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“Mom?”

It’s the only word I can manage to say, but it’s powerful enough to put a five-foot divide between them. My mother turns away from me. Jonah looks down at his feet.

I just stare at them in disbelief.

I’m shaking my head, trying to convince myself that I didn’t just see that. My mother . . . kissing her dead sister’s fiancé. My mother . . . kissing her dead husband’s best friend.

I take a step out of the doorway, as if the room is contaminated with betrayal and I’m afraid I might catch it. My mother takes a breath and then faces me, tears rimming her eyes. “Clara . . .”

I don’t give her the chance to explain. I don’t really want to know why that was happening. I run to my room because I need solitude before they’re able to reach me. I slam my door and lock it; then for extra reassurance, I scoot my nightstand in front of it.

“Clara, open the door,” my mother says, her tearful voice muffled by the door, her knuckles rapping against it.

“Clara.” Jonah is speaking now. “Please open the door.” “Leave me alone!”

My mother is crying. I can hear Jonah apologizing, but it’s so quiet I know he’s not apologizing to me. He’s apologizing to my mother.

“Just go,” I hear her say. Jonah’s footsteps fade down the hallway.

She knocks on the door again. “Clara, please open the door. You don’t understand. It’s . . . just open the door.”

I flip off my light. “I’m going to bed! I don’t want to speak to you tonight! Go! Away!” I fall onto my bed. The knocking against my bedroom door finally stops. Not even two minutes later, I hear the front door slam shut.

My mother tries one more time to get me to open the door, but I roll onto my side and ignore her, covering my ears with a pillow. After a few

minutes of attempting to regulate my breathing, I release the pillow. The knocking has ceased, hopefully for good this time. I hear her bedroom door close across the hall, which means I have until morning to talk myself out of murdering her.

I push myself off the bed. I begin to pace my room, my skin buzzing with anger. How could she do this? They just died two months ago.

A thought rips through me and causes me to fall back onto the bed.

How long has she been doing this?

I start to think back on the last several weeks. Jonah has been over here so many times since my father and Aunt Jenny died. My memory is awakened with an entirely new perspective of every moment—the night they were outside in the dark when I got home, the night he came to fix the door, the excuse he made that he needed to come back the next day to finish the door. That time they left the house together, and when I looked on the app, it showed my mom’s phone had been at the Langford Hotel.

That was only a week after their deaths. I feel like I might be sick.

How long have they been having an affair?

I feel so stupid. Jonah is always asking about her in class— pretending it’s concern.

Did Elijah really even have a fever this morning? Hell, Jonah probably stayed the night last night and I had no idea because I was in my bedroom. It would explain why he was here so early. Why my mother finally cooked breakfast for the first time since before my father died.

I pray my father had no idea. This whole time I’ve been feeling so guilty for possibly having a hand in ruining everyone’s lives, but Jonah and my mother have been ruining everyone’s lives since before the accident!

How could my mother do this to Jenny? I don’t have a sister, but what kind of human would do that to their own flesh and blood?

I hate her so much right now. I hate her so much I’d be fine if I never even spoke to her again. I hate her so much I sit on the edge of my bed and think of all the ways I can get revenge for what they’ve been doing to our family.

I’m running out of ways to rebel. I’ve done drugs, I’ve gotten detention, I’ve lied, I’ve missed curfew. The only thing left I could do that I know would upset her is if I were to have sex with Miller. She’s always begged me to wait until I was at least eighteen, which I probably

wasn’t going to do anyway, but if she knew I lost my virginity at sixteen,

and to Miller Adams, it would destroy her.

I look at my alarm clock. It’s not even eight o’clock yet. I still have four hours to make it happen before my birthday tomorrow. And I really need Miller right now, anyway. His presence is very calming, and I could use some calming vibes.

I grab my phone and call Miller.

“Hey,” he says, answering right away. “What’s up?” “What time do you get off work?”

“Not for another half hour. You can still come kiss me good night before your curfew, though.”

“Will you come to my house when you leave?” “Your house?” he pauses. “Are you sure?” “Yeah, but use the bedroom window.”

“Oh, are we being sneaky?” I can hear the grin in his voice. “Okay, but I’ve never been inside your house. I don’t know which window yours is.”

“First window, right side of the house.” “Facing the house?”

“Yes. And . . . bring a condom.”

He pauses for several long seconds. “Are you sure?” “Positive.”

“It’s . . . Clara, we don’t have to.”

“You promised you weren’t going to talk me out of it.”

“I don’t know that it was a promise. And I assumed it would be a while before we . . .”

“I changed my mind. I don’t want to wait until prom.”

He’s silent again. Then he says, “Okay. Yeah. Be there in less than an hour.”

I turn on my radio to help drown out any noise Miller or I might make. I light two candles and put one by my bed and one by the window so that he can make his way around my dark bedroom. I take a shower while I wait for him. I try to get all my tears out before he shows up. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many. I’m too angry to cry, I think. I didn’t know I was capable of reaching this level of anger, but I’ve reached it, and there might even be room for more anger. Who knows? Guess I’ll see what I’m really capable of when my mother and I come face to face tomorrow.

I get out of the shower and wrap a towel around myself. I blow-dry my hair a little so that it’s not dripping wet. I apply some mascara and

pinch my cheeks because I look pale right now. Realizing your own mother is not the person you thought she was can really drain the color from your face.

I’m looking for lip gloss when I hear a light tap on my window. I rush to my closet to find something to put on, but then I remember why Miller is here in the first place. He’s here to get me naked. The towel will do just fine.

I open my bedroom window while Miller takes off the screen. When he climbs inside, he glances around the room before he takes me in. When his eyes finally land on me, I can see his realization sink in. I’m pretty sure up until this point, he didn’t think I was serious about losing my virginity to him tonight. But now that I’m standing in front of him, wearing nothing but a towel, his reaction becomes physical.

He bites his fist and winces as he looks at me from head to toe. “Holy shit, Clara.”

I would laugh, but I’m still too angry. I don’t want him to feel my mood, though. I need to shake it off long enough to get this over with.

Miller cups my face in his hands. “Are you absolutely positive this is what you want?” He’s whispering, thank God. The last thing I need is for my mother to ruin this part of my life too.

I nod. “Yes.”

“What about your mom? Where is she?”

“She’s in her room. My door is locked. We’ll be quiet. Plus, my music is on, so she won’t hear us.”

Miller nods, but he seems nervous. I didn’t expect him to be nervous. “I’m sorry I keep asking if you’re sure. I just wasn’t expecting this to happen for a while, so . . .”

“Seventy percent of couples have sex on the first date. I think we’ve been really patient.”

Miller laughs quietly. “Did you just make up a fake statistic to try and get in my pants?”

“Did it work?”

He pulls his shirt over his head, and it falls to the floor. “It would have worked without the fake statistic.” He kisses me then. A full-body kiss—the kind where our legs and bodies and arms are pressed together so close not even air could pass between us. He backs me up to my bed but stops before my legs meet my mattress.

His kiss made this real. Before, when it was my anger fueling my actions, I felt like this probably wouldn’t happen. But now that he’s here and his shirt is on my floor and I’m only wearing a towel and we’re

about to be on my bed, it is very real. I’m about to have sex with Miller Adams.

And I’m ready. I think.

If my mother knew what was happening just ten feet down the hall from her bedroom, it would destroy her.

Yep. I’m definitely ready.

My anger prompts me to drop my towel. When I do, Miller gasps and looks up at the ceiling. I’m confused that he’s looking at the ceiling and not at me.

“I’m down here.”

His hands move to my hips, and he just rests them there, still staring up. “I know. I just . . . I guess I’m used to sex being like baseball. You know, lots of bases I have to make it to before I reach home plate. I feel like I’m cheating at the game.”

That makes me laugh. “You hit a home run, Miller. It’s your lucky night.”

He finally lowers his head, but he only looks at my face. “Get under the covers.”

I grin and climb under the covers as he attempts to avert his eyes the whole time. He starts to climb under the covers with me, but I stop him.

“Take off your pants first.”

He tilts his head. “Why are we in such a hurry?” “Because. I don’t want to change my mind.” “Maybe that’s a sign you aren’t ready yet.”

God, why can’t he just be like other guys and be a complete asshole about this?

“I’m ready. I’m very ready.”

He focuses on my face for a moment, as if he’s searching for a piece of me that’s lying to him. He forgets what a great actress I am. He finally stands up and unbuttons his pants, then kicks them off. He’s wearing boxer shorts with pineapples all over them.

“Sexy.”

He grins. “Thought you might like these.”

I lift the covers, and he slides into my bed with me but then holds up a finger. “One sec.” He rolls over and reaches to the floor to grab his jeans. When he rolls back over, he’s holding four condoms up like the choice is all mine. “Got them at the Valero on the corner. They’re fruit flavored.”

“Why are they flavored? Are condoms edible?”

My question makes Miller laugh. “No. It’s for . . .” He suddenly blushes. “You know. If you put your mouth on it.”

His answer makes me redden. My question shows just how inexperienced I am. The furthest I’ve ever gone with a guy is when Miller took my shirt off and we made out on his bed for an hour.

I take the orange-flavored condom out of Miller’s hand and set it on the nightstand. “Not the orange one. It’ll ruin the moment. Can’t even believe you brought that into my house.”

He laughs. “Sorry. It was a vending machine in the men’s bathroom. I didn’t get to choose what came out of it.” Miller picks one of the remaining condoms and tosses the other two on the nightstand with the orange one. When he turns back to me, he slips his arm under the covers and pulls me against him.

It scares me. The feeling of his skin against mine. Knowing his boxer shorts are the only thing separating us right now. He wraps a leg over me, and part of me is sad that I’m rushing it, because making out with him at his house was nice. But this is different. This isn’t as intimate because so many steps are being skipped, and I know this, but I feel like I’m too far into it to change my mind. I bury my face in the crevice of his neck because I don’t want him to look at me. I’m afraid of what he’ll see when he looks in my eyes.

“I don’t have to put it on yet,” he whispers. “We can do other stuff first. I mean . . . technically I haven’t even touched your boob yet.”

I grab his hand and slide it over my stomach, up to my breast. He groans, and then he’s the one burying his face in my neck.

“Let’s just get the hard part over with first. Then we can do other stuff,” I whisper.

Miller nods, then pulls back and kisses me gently. I can feel him taking off his boxer shorts as he kisses me. He pulls away from my lips while he puts on the condom, but he keeps his mouth close to mine. His breath crashes against me in short spurts.

When he rolls on top of me, he’s looking down at me with eyes full of so many things. Longing, appreciation, wonder. I want to feel all the things he’s feeling as we experience each other for the first time, but all I feel is betrayed. Lied to. Stupid.

“Relax a little more,” he says. “It’ll hurt less if you aren’t so tense.”

I try to relax, but it’s difficult when all I can think of is how sorry I feel for Jenny. And Dad. And how this is the first time I’ve ever hoped that an afterlife doesn’t exist. At least not one where Jenny and Dad can see how little Jonah and my mother are grieving for them.

Miller’s lips meet mine, and I’m grateful for the distraction. Then something else distracts me. There’s a pain and pressure between my legs when he begins to push into me, and then an even deeper pain, coupled with a rush of air passing Miller’s lips.

I wince. He stops moving and kisses me gently on the corner of my mouth. “You okay?”

I nod.

He’s kissing me again, and this time when he pushes against me, I feel it happen. It’s a significant feeling, like there was a barrier deep inside me keeping us apart, but that barrier is gone and Miller is moving against me now and I just lost my virginity.

It’s both special and not. It’s both painful and not. I regret it and I don’t.

I lie still, my hands on his back, my legs around his. I like the feel of him against me, although I’m not sure I like the feel of what’s happening as a whole. My heart isn’t in it, which means my body is struggling to be in it. He’s being gentle and sweet, and the sounds he’s making are extremely sexy, but I don’t feel it in my soul. My soul is too full of resentment to allow room for any of what’s happening right now to enter.

Part of me wishes I’d have waited. But it would have been with Miller regardless. In the grand scheme of things, would dragging it out a few more months have even made a difference?

Probably.

Okay, all of me wishes I’d have waited. I feel bad that I rushed it. I feel bad that my anger fueled this rash decision. But Miller seems to be enjoying himself, so there’s that, at least.

Maybe I don’t really feel the way I expected to feel in this moment because I realized tonight that love is full of so much ugliness and betrayal and maybe I don’t want anything to do with it. What I think I feel for Miller is what Jenny probably felt for Jonah and what my father probably felt for my mother, and look where that got them.

Miller’s mouth is on my neck now. One of his hands is gripping my thigh, and I kind of like the position we’re in. Maybe the next time we’re in this position, it’ll hurt less, both physically and emotionally. Maybe I’ll actually appreciate how much he enjoys it next time it happens. Maybe I’ll actually enjoy it.

But right now, I’m not enjoying anything. My mind won’t stop going there. Their actions make me not believe in whatever Miller and I

feel for each other, and that makes me sad. It hurts because I so want to believe in Miller and me. I want to believe in the way he looks at me, but I’ve seen my mother look at my father like that, so does it even mean anything? I want to believe Miller when he says he’s never craved anyone like he craves me, but how long will that be true? Until he grows bored with me and finds a girl he craves more than me? Thank God I don’t have a sister for him to fall in love with.

I pull Miller closer, wanting my face hidden against his skin. I hate having these thoughts, especially right now, but Miller is the only thing in my life that’s made me happy since they died, and now I’m scared my mother and Jonah have ruined that. Not only am I questioning them, and now Miller, but I’m questioning the whole stupid idea of monogamy and the validity of love and thinking how losing my virginity really isn’t all that special. Because if love isn’t real, then sex is just sex, no matter if it’s your first time or your fiftieth time or your last time.

It’s just one body part inside another body part. Big freaking deal.

Maybe that’s why people find it so easy to cheat: because sex is actually inconsequential. No different than two people shaking hands. Maybe having sex with your boyfriend for the first time means as little as having sex with your dead sister’s fiancé.

“Clara?” Miller says my name between heavy breaths. Between movements. Then he stops.

I open my eyes and pull away from his neck, allowing my head to fall back onto my pillow.

“Am I hurting you?”

I shake my head. “No.”

He brushes hair from my face and runs a thumb down my wet cheek. “Why are you crying?”

I don’t want to talk about it. Especially not right now. I shake my head. “It’s nothing.” I try to pull him against me again, but he separates himself from me and then rolls off me. I feel strangely empty now.

“Did I do something wrong?” he asks.

I hate the worry in his eyes. I hate that he’s thinking any part of my reaction has anything to do with him, so I adamantly shake my head. “No. It’s not you, I swear.”

He looks relieved, but only for a fraction of a second. “Then what is it? You’re scaring me,” he whispers.

“It’s not you. It’s my mother. We got in a really bad argument tonight, and I’m just . . .” I wipe the tears away with my hands. “I’m so angry at her. I’m so angry, and I don’t know how to process it.” I roll

over onto my side so I can face him. “She and Jonah are having an affair.”

Miller pulls back a little, shocked. “What?”

I nod, and I see the sympathy in his expression. He places a soothing hand on the side of my head.

“Earlier, when I got home, I walked in on them in the kitchen. I got so angry. It’s the angriest I’ve ever been in my life, and I think I might actually hate her. Like . . . I’m having all these thoughts about how much she’s betrayed my dad and my aunt. I can’t stop thinking about everything I can do to get back at her and punish her because all I can think about is how she deserves to suffer too.” I lift up on my elbow. “They haven’t been gone long enough for her to even be thinking about anyone other than my father. Which is why I’m pretty sure it was happening before the wreck.”

Miller is quiet for a moment, staring at me with a perplexed look, probably unsure how to comfort me when I’m this upset. He falls onto his back and stares up at the ceiling. “That’s why you called me over here?” His voice has a sharp edge to it, even though it’s still a whisper. “Because you’re mad at your mother?”

His reaction is staggering. I reach out and put my hand on his chest, but he grabs my wrist and flicks it off him. He rolls over and sits on the edge of the bed, his back to me.

“No. Miller, no.” I’m saying no, but that word is a lie, and we both know it. I place a hand on his shoulder, but he flinches when I touch him. He stands up, and I hear the snap of the condom as he pulls it off and tosses it angrily into the trash can next to my bed. He slides his boxers on and then steps into his jeans. He won’t even look at me.

“Miller, I swear. That’s not why I called you over here.”

He’s walking across my bedroom. “Why’d you call me, then? You weren’t ready for this to happen tonight.” He snatches up his shirt and finally looks at me. I expect to see anger in his eyes, but all I see is hurt.

I’m sitting up on the bed, the blanket pulled up to my chest. “I was, though. I promise. I wanted to be with you—that’s why I called you.” I’m desperately trying to recover, but I think I’ve ruined this. It’s terrifying me.

He takes a step forward, waving a hand in my direction. “You’re upset with your mother, Clara. You didn’t want me—you wanted revenge. I knew you weren’t ready. It was weird . . . it was . . .” He releases a frustrated rush of air.

I use the sheet to wipe some of my tears away. “I called you because I was upset, yes. But being so upset is what made me want to be with you.”

He’s already got his shirt over his head, but he pauses as he’s pulling it down over his chest. “I would have come over, Clara. Without the sex. You know that.”

Why can’t I stop offending him? I don’t want to hurt him, but that’s all I’m doing right now.

He reopens the window, and the last thing I want him to do is leave. I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t mean to drag him into this. But I don’t want him to leave me alone right now.

“Miller, wait.” He’s about to climb out the window, so I plead with him again, moving to the edge of my bed, still wrapped up in my blanket. “Please. It wasn’t personal. I swear.”

Those words pull him away from the window and back toward the bed. He lowers himself in front of me and cups my face with both hands. “You’re right. That’s why I’m so upset with you. The one thing that should be the most personal to us wasn’t personal at all.”

His words rip through me, and a loud sob breaks from my chest. I can’t believe I did this. It feels like I’ve stooped to my mother’s level. Miller releases me and starts to climb out the window, and I cover my mouth with both hands, unable to stop the feelings from tearing through me. It’s not just what I’ve done to Miller. It’s everything. I feel everything. I feel the loss of Jenny and the absence of my father and the guilt over how they died and the betrayal of my mother and the pain I caused Miller, and it’s so much all at once that I don’t think I can do this anymore. I crawl back up my bed and bury my face into my pillow, but I really just want to pull the covers over my head and close my eyes and never feel any of it again. It’s too much. It’s not fair. It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair.

I feel the mattress dip beside me, and when I roll toward him, he wraps his arms around me and pulls me against him. It makes me cry even harder.

I try to tell him I’m sorry, but I’m crying so much I can’t even get words out. Miller presses soft lips against the side of my head, and I struggle to say it, but the only word I’m sure he can make out is sorry between sobs.

He doesn’t tell me it’s okay or that he forgives me. He doesn’t say anything. He spends the next several minutes silently comforting me while I cry.

My face is pressed against his chest—buried deep into his shirt. When I can finally find my words again, I use them. Over and over. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You’re right, and I feel terrible.” My words are muffled against him. “I’m so sorry.”

He’s gently cupping the back of my head. “I know you feel bad,” he whispers. “I forgive you. But I’m still mad at you.”

Despite his words, he presses a kiss into my hair, and that’s all the forgiveness I need from him right now. He should be mad at me. I don’t blame him. I’m mad at me.

He lies with me for a while, but when I’m no longer crying, he pulls away and looks down at me, running his hand over my cheek. “I should probably go. It’s getting late.”

I shake my head and look pleadingly into his eyes. “Please don’t. I don’t want to be alone right now.”

I can see the three seconds of contemplation swirling around in his eyes before he nods. Then he sits up on the bed and takes off his T-shirt. He bunches it up and then reaches over and slides it over my head. “Wear this.”

I slip my arms into the T-shirt, and with the covers still on top of me, I pull the T-shirt over my hips.

It’s not lost on me that even after everything that’s happened tonight, he still hasn’t seen me naked. He never even looked when I dropped my towel.

He slips under the covers with me and pulls me to him so that my back is pressed against his chest. We share a pillow. We hold hands. And eventually, we both fall asleep, angry at different people, but both hurting the same.

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