“Ethan?” she asked. “Is that you?”
“Hello, Finley,” I answered.
“How are you?” she asked, somehow devoid of the pity I’d often heard in so many greetings since Cricket. I was grateful to her for this.
“I’m fine,” I slurred, lifting my head a bit to meet her eyes.
A grin met her lips. “You were always a terrible liar.” Her smile fell a little. “What are you doing here?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You hate drinking.”
“I learned to love it,” I said, downing the remaining contents of my glass, letting it burn.
She looked me up and down, making me feel self-conscious. “But apparently it doesn’t love you.”
“Thanks,” I snorted, acting like I didn’t care. But I did.
“You look terrible,” she said, ignoring me. “Are you even eating?”
“I’m consuming the daily recommended calorie intake,” I hedged.
“Ah,” she answered, examining my empty glass.
I shook my head and signaled to Vi for another.
Finley narrowed her eyes once more. “Can I get a basket of chicken tenders too, Vi?” she added.
“Sure thing,” she said, ringing up Finley’s food before grabbing the bottle of Jack and filling me to the top.
Finley examined my glass but didn’t say a word.
“What?” I asked, feeling defensive.
“Nothing,” she answered, looking at her hands.
“Not at all,” she said sincerely and looked me dead in the eye.
This look froze me, and the glass slipped from my fingers and back onto the bar top, spilling a little from the rim.
“I’ve done that very thing,” she said, gesturing toward my glass.
“Drink ’til you’re numb?”
“No,” she said, “succumb to a vice in order to forget.”
I leaned forward, stunned by this admission, and my eyes found hers. “What, Finley?”
She hesitated, started to open her mouth, but someone called her name and she turned around. It was an ex-classmate of ours, couldn’t remember her name, the one she’d been dancing with, and I found myself feeling anxious all of a sudden. I hadn’t felt anxious in a long time. Hadn’t felt anything, really, other than severe pain and shame, in a very long time. Huh.
“Finley, Chris is gonna give me a ride back home. You cool?” the girl asked, eyeing me. She knew. The whole town knew about my tumble down the rabbit hole.
“Yeah, Holly Raye. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she answered, her brows scrunched in confusion.
Finley was surprised by Holly Raye’s apparent worry which I found odd.
“Okay,” Holly Raye said, kissing Finley’s cheek.
Chris was waiting by the door for her, and we both watched them leave, afraid to speak, our earlier moment gone.
Vi walked up with Finley’s chicken tenders and set them in front of her. Her fingers found one but lifted up quickly with a tiny gasp.
“Hot,” she whispered, resting her fingers against the side of her water glass.
She let them cool for a few moments and we sat in awkward silence. I wasn’t sure what she was still doing there. I didn’t have any clue why she had even started to talk to me either. I mean, I knew in high school she’d had a crush on me, but I figured it was long gone. She used to stare at me a little doe eyed, and I had always done my best to be kind to her but not too kind. I’d considered her a friend but nothing more, even if I did take solace in my conversations with her. I’d never admitted that out loud to anyone then, though, not that I was ashamed or anything. It’s just, I was in love with Cricket.
The ache in my chest burned deep, a restless reminder of all I’d lost. And suddenly I felt guilty for finding Finley attractive even when I thought she was a stranger. Even after Cricket left me for Spencer.
“You should probably leave,” I told her.
She looked at me like I was crazy. “I’ll do whatever I want,” she said, sitting taller, pitching me that confident Finley attitude I remembered from high school.
“Whatever,” I said, then called out to Vi for another round, which she served up quickly.
Finley tore apart a few tenders then handed me half of one.
“Uh, no,” I said, downing my glass.
“Uh, yes,” she mocked, shoving the piece in my face.
“Stop,” I said, swiping it away.
“Eat, damn it,” she said.
I looked at her and the expression on her face told me she wouldn’t quit, so I roughly took it from her and took a large bite. She bit into her own piece, a smug look on her face. She practically hand fed me every piece in the damn basket, but I didn’t care. I knew what she was doing, but it wouldn’t work because the liquor resting in my belly was too substantial to be worked against.
“What have you done with your summer?” she asked me.
“This,” I said, gesturing to my glass.
“What the hell, Ethan?”
“What, are you my mother?” I asked, immediately regretting those choice of words. I closed my eyes.
Mom. My heart dropped into my throat. Must remedy that.
“Vi,” I said loudly to her at the other end of the bar. “One more.”
Vi walked the length of the bar and filled my glass again, much to Finley’s obvious horror.
“Vi, can I get some mozzarella sticks?” she asked.
“Of course, darlin’.”
Finley smiled at me.
“I’m not eating those,” I told her.
“Oh, you’ll eat them.”
“I sure as hell will not, Finley Dyer.”
She leaned closer and my head began to swim. Her signature scent of apples and wild daisies swarmed around me, making my heart race. It’d never bothered me before. It’s the liquor, I told myself.
“You will or I’m taking your ass home right now.”
“You can just kiss that ass, Fin.”
“That’s the Jack talking.”
“No, that’s me. I don’t want to play anymore. I want to be left alone now.”
“You see,” she said, settling her elbows on the bar top, “I think- No, I know you’re lying. Like I said before, you’re a terrible liar. I think you’ve lied so often about wanting to be left alone, though, that you’ve convinced your head it’s the truth, but you can’t convince the heart, Ethan. You know why? Because the heart can’t ever be lied to, and yours beats the loneliest I’ve ever heard.”
I didn’t answer her. Couldn’t answer her.
“What have you done this summer?” I asked, ignoring her spot-on observation.
She played along. “I’ve had a temp job here in Kalispell answering phones for Smith Travel, trying to earn cash for my trip.”
My brows furrowed. “What trip?”
“I’m heading over to Vietnam for a year.”
This shocked me. “What in the world would you go to Vietnam for?”
“Charity work,” she answered, making me laugh.
“Why?” I asked.
“Don’t be an asshole,” she replied.
“No, really, why?”
“I’ve wanted to do this for close to five years now.”
“How come I don’t ever remember you talking about this at school?”
“Ethan,” she said softly, “let’s not pretend we ever really talked in high school deeper than filler conversation.”
This wounded me a little, though I’m not sure why. “What the hell, Finley? You and I were friends.”
Now it was her turn to laugh. “We were most definitely not friends. I may know everything about you and you may know everything about me because we grew up together, but we were not friends. You had a constant bodyguard in Cricket.”
I sat up at the mention of her name. “Don’t ever say her name again,” I gritted.
She raised her hands in concession. “Fine.”
There was a pregnant pause as she let me calm myself down.
“I talked to you a lot in the classes we had,” I offered.
“We talked a lot about the upcoming football games or class assignments. Once or twice, we took the seventy-year-old route and discussed the weather.”
I fought my grin. “Okay, so it was always surface observation, but we were kids.”
“No, Ethan, that’s not what it was.”
“Well, you were in love with me,” I bravely spit. “I couldn’t take it further than just below the shoal.” Thank you, Mr. Daniels.
“Full of yourself, are we?” she asked. “Listen,” she continued, “I had a crush on you in high school. So what? Lots of girls did. But I was, am, a human being. You didn’t have to treat me like some leper. Trust me, Ethan, we all know who you belonged to,” she said.
She stood to leave, but I grabbed her arm. The heated warmth of her skin shot straight to my heart. We looked at one another, wide eyed, our chests panting. I shook my head to recompose myself. “I’m sorry,” I told her, encouraging her to sit back down. “I’m- I know you deserved better.”
She hesitated but sat back in her seat. I stared at her, a little too intently thanks to the Jack. She nodded once and we sat in a comfortable silence as I had five more shots.
The whiskey made my body heavy as hell, the weight of its honeyed venom deadened the ache inside me pleasantly.
I sighed and smiled to myself.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
I looked up at her though it felt unusually burdensome and leaned toward her. “I’m going to get them back,” I admitted to her.
She narrowed her eyes. “Who, Ethan?”
“Them,” I said, bringing a tired finger to my lips. “Don’t tell anyone.”
I fell back into my chair. I brought my fingers to my empty glass and tilted it, balancing it on one finger. She was quiet for a moment.
“Ethan,” she began, whispering, “that’s not like you.”
I smiled. “I’m not who I used to be, Finley.”
“That’s a shame,” she said, “because you used to be wonderful.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “Do you know what they did to me?”
“She left you for him,” she said matter-of-factly.
I let the glass tip over onto its side at her bluntness. “Exactly. After all I did for her. After all I was to her. She left me for him.”
“She wasn’t meant for you, Ethan.”
My skin burned with hatred at that statement. “No one is meant for anyone, Finley. You choose someone and then you make a commitment.”
She shook her head at me. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.“
“She chose me, convinced me that she was all in, and I was willing to die for her because of it. She convinced me she actually loved me. I thought she loved me.”
“She did love you. I believe she, you both really, would have been somewhat happy if Spencer had never shown up.”
“You’re not hearing me. You both would have been somewhat happy. Neither of you would have been utterly happy.”
This infuriated me. “I could have made her happy!” I yelled, earning a few glances from around the bar.
“Yes, you could have made her happy, but not as happy as Spencer does.”
My blood simmered in my veins. “You are cruel,” I bit.
She leaned forward. “I’m being honest with you. Someone has to since you’re not being honest with yourself. I saw them together, Ethan, and she never looked at you like that.”
“Stop,” I said, gritting my teeth. “Stop.”
“Ethan,” she said, resting her hand on mine. I yanked it from her. “Don’t you want the same thing for yourself? Don’t you want forever with someone who burns for you the way you burn for her? You deserve that just as much as she does.”
“Shut up,” I said, bringing my hands to my hair and fisting it at my ears. I didn’t want to hear it.
“Fine,” she said, sitting up. She looked around her and asked Vi for two cups of coffee.
I couldn’t breathe. Finley voiced everything I’d worked so hard to drown out, I’d attempted to numb. I hated her for ruining the struggle to suppress it. I just wanted to pretend. I wanted my hate, wanted it to live close to me. It was the only thing I felt could keep me alive. I couldn’t let her go. I didn’t want her to be loved by anyone but me. I didn’t want to be reminded that someone else really did love her better than I did, that someone else made her happier. Because I had watched them too. I saw what Finley saw, and my God did I hate Spencer Blackwell for it.
I wanted bitter.
I wanted sadness.
I wanted revenge.