I'll Be Here Online - Autumn Doughton

CHAPTER ONE

“It’s not you, it’s…” his voice trails off lamely. He takes a breath, drawing his eyebrows together.

I wait for the sucker punch while the sinking, gaping feeling grows inside of me. Three agonizing seconds. Four. Five.

“It’s me.”

Ohmigodohmigodohmigod

Inside of me is all whirl and spin. A cockroach is doing pirouettes on my chest. A cockroach in a tutu.

I would breathe but a giant has his grubby hands wrapped around my lungs and he’s squeezing.

Tighter.

All these images swim around me. That first night at the beach. A wide smile of perfectly even teeth. His almond-shaped nails. The flat tire we got last summer on the way home from Sam’s lake house. Strong hands on the tire jack—on me.

And the silky gold dress that’s hanging on the front of my closet door—a constant reminder of my perfect prom plans. Now the dress, the magazine clippings of dramatic updos, and the three shoe boxes stacked in the corner beside my dresser so I’d have “options” all add up to nothing more than a silly fantasy shattered and scattered like an exploded star. Debris flutters down around me. It’s the confetti at my going away party.

Ignoring his hazel eyes, I stare down. At my cheese fries. At the crushed peanut shells scattered across the dark wood floor. At the centimeter long thread jutting from the hem of my sweater.

A quick assessment of my body reveals: both eyeballs are on fire which is probably an indication of tears in the near future. My tongue feels like it’s been switched out for extra-absorbent cotton balls and my wildly thumping heart is so loud that I’m sort of surprised the guy sitting in the booth behind us hasn’t shouted at me to keep down the racket. At least it’s still beating, right?

I take a deep breath and try to focus on clearing my head because that’s what people say that you’re supposed to do in these situations.

Across from me Dustin’s mouth is moving and I guess that words are coming out of it, but I can’t even hear what he is saying over the roaring in my head. I squeeze my eyelids shut not wanting to see his suntanned face with the signature dimple smack-dab in the middle of his left cheek, or the sandy curls that I like to brush back and tuck behind his ear even though they always slide stubbornly back. The insides of my eyelids are dark and filled with purply-white sparkling stars. It’s like I’m getting a glimpse at another galaxy and I have this crazy idea that I’ve been sucked through a black hole and spit out in an alternate universe.

Another deep breath.

Okay.

Again.

Better.

The thundering in my head finally begins to subside and I lift my hand and make the universal “stop” motion. Thankfully, Dustin shuts the hell up. Even with my eyes closed I know that he’s watching me and waiting. I can feel his waiting like it’s a solid thing bumping into my leg—nudging me to get a move on it, calling me a slowpoke.

My hands are full of air.

My mouth is full of dirt.

When I do open my eyes, it’s almost a surprise to see that things in this place are relatively normal. It’s just your run of the mill Friday night. The bar area is packed to the brim with people watching a game on a big screen television.

No one even bothers to look over at us but I wonder what would happen if they did. Would they be able to see? Would they notice that my head has fallen off my body and rolled under the table? Or would they just see a girl in a booth sitting with a plate full of greasy fries in front of her?

The waitress brushes by the table. She’s got a tray piled high with plates of onion rings and cooked flesh. With one free hand, she flips her coppery hair over her shoulder and pulls out a stack of napkins from the maroon half-apron tied at her waist. She sees me watching her and half-smiles with one side of her wide mouth. I smile back out of habit but it feels weird on my face. Like I’m a Potato Head and I’ve got the wrong mouth on. The waitress keeps moving. People are waiting on their food.

Across from me Dustin shifts uncomfortably and furrows his brow again. It’s an expression I know well and find endearing. Or rather, did. Did find endearing that is. Now I see that it just makes