Whisper to Me

Between Breaths - 3

Christina Lee

To Stacie. You are courageous. Resilient. Beautiful.

Chapter One Rachel

Scientists say that we’re all made of pieces of stars.

Never had that felt truer in my life than that one fateful night three years ago. I’d clung to my boyfriend’s shirt on the back of an old dirt bike as he increased his speed around the bend on Meadow Road. When the motorcycle narrowly missed the cat that darted into our path and skidded against the guardrail, I could have sworn I went sailing as high as those glittering pinpoints of light.

Crashing down and leaving a trail of dust in my wake, I stared up at those brilliant luminaries stretching through the heavens. I reached for the promise ring that’d hung as a fixture around my neck, but my fingers only met my collarbone. I was certain my head had burst into flames, the stars low and imposing, as darkness descended upon me. I imagined myself combusting into a fine powder, and uniting with those incandescent wonders, like a dazzling supernova in the sky.

And now here I was again, at another one of these field parties, the kind I hadn’t been to since high school. Though it was good to see all of my old friends, some of them still didn’t know what the hell to say to me. And I didn’t know what to say to them. Since we’d added a few semesters of college, the division had become even wider. It was now the summer between my junior and senior years of college, but to them I was still the girl with the shaved head and ugly scar.

My neck was stiff from gazing upward, so I yanked my legs inside the bed of the truck and settled against a rolled-up sleeping bag. It was flipping hot out here for eleven o’clock at night. Beads of sweat formed above my lip and pooled down the center of my boobs.

I located the North Star and stared at it until my vision blurred and the beat of the music took over my senses. Shane Garity had had the same damn pickup truck since way back when. It was old and rusty but the speakers could still crank out the tunes. And everyone continued to seek out the field in the back of his parent’s house for impromptu parties just like this one.

Some things never changed.

Dakota hadn’t returned from using the bathroom, so I figured she and Shane were up to their usual flirting ways. He’d crushed on her all through high school, and she knew it and practically egged him on, except when her brother, Kai, was around. He was Shane’s best friend and had let him know in no uncertain terms that his sister was off-limits.

My elbow had knocked over her red Solo Cup and her syrupy wine had leaked into the rusty cracks of the truck bed. It reminded me of the way the lovable me had trickled away as the trauma team stitched my head back together.

Dakota was my oldest friend, and even though we’d gone our separate ways after high school, she easily folded me back into her life, and had even begged me to stay at her expensive apartment this summer. Her parents were loaded, and despite having been blessed with the newest model car, amazing digs, and incredible looks, she never acted like a spoiled brat. She worked her ass off for her finance degree at the local private university and was motivated to make a name for herself.

I figured it’d be an easy commute into the city from her apartment to help Mom with her fledgling business. When Daddy divorced her the year after my accident, she got the house and the company. But the location of Pure sucked. It was smack dab in the middle of the touristy part of the city and sightseers didn’t seem to be interested in handmade soaps and lotions. They wanted magnets and bumper stickers. No wonder the store wasn’t doing so hot.

Mom had remarried and moved to a smaller condo with her new husband, but she kept hanging on to this damn business as if her life depended on it. I always suspected she wanted to prove to Daddy that she’d made something of it. I’d suggested a location change to the East End and she’d taken that as a sign that I’d help her make the move this summer.

“Been studying astronomy in your spare time?” Shane asked.

Dakota stood near the rear wheel next to Shane, whose hands were shoved deep in his pockets. I gave them both a cursory glance to check for any signs of fooling around. The way his gaze roamed over her profile in quiet admiration made something stir inside my chest. Like a quiet yet potent surge of longing for someone I once loved. But then it slid away and I chalked it up to the nostalgia of being around this place again.

“The stars are brighter out here, asshead,” I said. “You know that.”

Dakota shook her head. “God, I missed your face. But your potty mouth? Not so much.”

“I appreciate Rachel’s potty mouth,” Shane said, wiggling his eyebrows.

“That’s a given,” Dakota said, rolling her eyes. “Boys.”

“I’m a complete package,” I said with a wink. “Take it or leave it.”

My effortless banter with my childhood friends was reminiscent of the same easiness I shared with my college friends, Avery and Ella. Except with Dakota and Shane, the easiness was real. I was someone different with my friends from school. Someone bolder and unattached—because if I was bold and unattached, I didn’t have to be me. Coming home had knocked some of that newfangled fire out of me, stripped me down to who I really was.

Dakota fingered the yellowed, peeling sticker on the truck’s bumper. Life’s a bitch and then you die. The adage found everywhere—widely accepted, even—from coffee mugs to greeting cards. I agreed it was a fair summation. Apart from the fact that I’d cheated death, which meant that bitch had spared me, so maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.

“You miss the city, Rachel?” Shane asked. He was ruggedly handsome, and he and Dakota would definitely make a sweet couple. He was kind and cool and never an asshole, which endeared him to me most of all. He still felt guilty about that night. I could see it in his eyes. But it had been my decision to hop on the back of his bike with no helmet for the ride of my life with Miles—only to return as wrecked as the motorcycle.

“It’s not like we’re in the boonies.” Dakota snorted. “The city’s only a train ride away and I’m guessing it wasn’t such a big change for her after all. Right, Rach?”

“Only a change of scenery, really.” I took a sip of my beer and returned to stargazing.

Dakota knew I’d left for college dejected, after Miles had broken things off while I was still laid up in the hospital. I left for a place far away, where no one would know to treat me differently, as everyone had been doing since my recovery.

I’d gone through months of rehab by the time I left, and despite occasional headaches, a slightly off-balance gait, and numbness in my fingers from time to time, nobody at college suspected I’d suffered a near-fatal subdural hematoma—in other words, a brain bleed, caused by the impact of the accident.

“Always wanted to hang at the less touristy places,” Shane said. “But Dakota didn’t invite me on her trip during winter break.”

Dakota bumped Shane with her hip. “That’s because I needed girl time with Rachel. I was afraid she’d forgotten about me.”

That little dig was for my benefit. I’d kept my distance, even from my best friend, because she was impossibly perfect and I felt like I couldn’t measure up during my recovery. She’d become an unrelenting cheerleader in rehab, constantly pushing me to try harder, do better—rah, rah, rah!—but I had practically caved from the pressure.

“I’d never forget you, babe.” Still, she was the one person who knew me best.

Or at least she used to. Little did Dakota know I’d spent my college years erasing Miles from my mind by becoming a new person. A different person. With a second chance at life. I hadn’t let things tie me down, so I’d never let anyone get too close. I’d bedded whomever I wanted and I always up and left them after they helped me take off the edge.

That’s why Avery and I saw eye to eye. She had the same attitude about guys. Until she met Bennett. And then Ella met Quinn—but that was just in time for me to leave town for the summer, anyway.

Avery and Ella accepted me for who I was even though I’d never let them get close enough to learn about my past. I’d become the free-spirited girl I’d always dreamed of being, with no worries dragging me down. It had worked until the phone call came from Mom, begging me to move back home this summer. Before that, I had been able to avoid prolonged visits since high school.

But Mom had been there for me, and now I needed to return the favor. I needed to revisit my old ties and responsibilities.

“How do you think your bro’s adjusting to being home?” Shane asked, and my head immediately snapped up at the mention of Dakota’s older brother.

When Dakota convinced me to live with her, she hadn’t told me that Kai had returned from studying abroad in Amsterdam and was crashing at her place this summer. During the past week I’d spent with the two of them, I couldn’t help smirking at the pseudo Dutch accent he’d picked up or secretly drooling over his new physique. I mean damn, he must have bench-pressed some serious windmills or shit over there.

Not that he was my type. I’d always had a thing for jocks. And Kai—with his rotating selection of Vans sneakers and pants that fit his lean thighs like a second skin—was most certainly not a jock.

Still, Kai and Dakota were my oldest friends. I needed to rein in my thoughts. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d admire Kai from a distance and it wouldn’t be the last.