Sequel: Right Here
Status: active;;

Tomorrow

chapter fourteen;;

I floated to the edge of consciousness, drifted on the fine line between sleep and awake; a dull throbbing disrupted the peaceful tranquility I was currently wrapped up in. I shifted, scrunching my eyes more tightly closed when a bar of sunlight landed across my face. A warm breeze brushed against my skin, and I breathed in deeply, enjoying the fresh air that’s replaced the stagnant smoke. I rubbed a hand over my eyes, pushed myself into a sitting position, and blinked rapidly at the brightness of the room. A large black trash bag leaned against the wall, filled to the brim with bottles and cigarette boxes. I turned my head at the sound of shuffling footsteps outside my door; Niall came into view with another bag in hand, and I watched as he shoved three more empty bottles into it. He set the bag on the end of my bed and glanced over, startling when he saw me.

“Oh. You’re awake.”

“Yeah.” I gazed around my room, taking in how clean it was now. “So… last night wasn’t a dream?”

He sat down beside me and scratched at the back of his head. “Nope, can’t say that it was.”

“Thank you,” I murmured after a pregnant pause.

“Ah, I couldn’t sleep very well, so I, uh, decided to clean up a bit.”

“I noticed. I… I wasn’t saying thank you for that. Although, y’know, thanks.”

“Then what are you thanking me for?”

“For, well… for being here for me.”

His face split with his smile, and at this angle, the sunlight hit his eyes just right, and I damn near fell headfirst into the bright blue pools. I shifted uncomfortably with the stirring of emotions inside; I’d spent a week trying not to a feel a thing, and ten minutes of talking to him sparked feelings that I wasn’t prepared to face. I ducked my head, picked at my ragged fingernails; his hand was warm, so warm, when he wrapped his fingers around mind.

“I was a jerk, and I feel so awful about it.”

“So you’re doing this to ease your conscience about being a total asshole to me?”

“No. No, no, I promise no. I’m… I’m doing this because I want to. I’m here because you need me. I’m here because, well, because I need to be. I really am sorry for how I treated you, though, and I swear it will never happen again.”

“I hope not.”

We fell silent, and I stared down at his hand holding mine. A pleasant tingling had come to life under my skin; I fought against the small smile trying to appear on my lips. I tugged him toward me, and his confused expression faded when I hugged him tightly, burying my face into the curve of his neck.

“Oh, my god, guys! She’s awake!”

Niall jerked away at Natalie’s shout, and I sighed at the multiple sets of feet thundering up the stairs. My friends stopped in the doorway, stared at us with shock painted on their faces. Niall made to move, to scoot away, but I held tight to his hand. He smiled reassuringly and squeezed back. Everyone’s intent gazes on me made me uncomfortable, and I fidgeted and avoided looking at them. Niall cleared his throat.

“Er, can you lot clear out? I think Erin needs some space to clean up.”

“Oh! Right, let’s go. We’ll be down in the kitchen, honey,” Amber said softly as she herded the others away from the door.

I watched while Niall dug through my dresser drawers for a tank-top, bra and panties (those he found with cherry-red cheeks, and he handed them over without eye contact), and socks. I grabbed a pair of worn-out jeans and a short-sleeved jacket from the closet. He hesitated then leaned forward to kiss my cheek before leaving me to myself. I bit my lip with a smile, touching my fingertips to the spot his lips had touched, then made my way down the hall to the bathroom.

As the water heated up, I stared at my reflection in the mirror above the sink. My roots had grown out, a dark brown stripe along my skull above lank, limp blonde. Dark purple semi-circles spread like bruises beneath my eyes, and my skin looked much paler in comparison. I poked lightly at my hollowed-out cheekbones. Sighing, I turned away from the mirror and started stripping from the clothes I’d been wearing since the day Jem died. I kept my eyes away from the sight of my collarbone and ribs, clearly visible beneath my skin. I hated the girl in the mirror.

The hot water rinsed away the grime and sweat that accumulated during my drunken bender. I shaved my legs and underarms, grimacing at the state of my razor’s blades when I was finished, and my hair felt lighter once I rinsed out the conditioner and shampoo. I pressed my forehead to the wall of the shower, let the water beat down against my back. Eventually, the water lost its heat, so I exhaled heavily, turned the taps off, and stepped out. Dressing quickly in order to avoid seeing my naked body any longer than necessary, I dumped my dirty laundry into the hamper and opened the door. I shivered as the cool air from the hallway rushed in.

Niall was sitting on my bed when I got to my room; his lips curved up into a smile, and he passed over my hairbrush. I sat beside him, running the brush through my wet hair. He didn’t say anything while I was occupied with my task, but as soon as I tossed the brush onto my dressing table, he drew in a deep breath.

“Amber wanted me to tell you that Jem’s funeral is tomorrow.”

“Oh.” I paused, closed my eyes against the pain welling up in my chest. “Wi-will you go with me? I don’t think I can do it alone.”

He let his hand settle on the back of my neck, pulled me in to his side. “Of course. I told you I wasn’t leaving, love.”

I listened to his steady breathing and tried my best to let the rhythm soothe me. Kids shouted as they played outside, cars honked occasionally, and I settled as the sounds of life surrounded me. After a long moment, I leaned back and shrugged a shoulder.

“Guess I should go see the others…”

He didn’t let go of my hand as we walked down the stairs. Though it was a short trip in reality, it felt like an eternity before we reached the kitchen where everybody was sitting, chatting quietly, at the table. DeDe looked up first.

“Oh, Erin.”

I swallowed past the lump in my throat. Brett rose to his feet and hugged me tightly enough that my ribs hurt. The rest of the group took their turns embracing me; guilt sprouted into life when I realised just how much these people were hurting, too. It wasn’t just me who lost someone special, someone important ー it was a devastating blow to everyone gathered in my kitchen. I forced a smile when Nat brushed my hair from my cheek, her brows pulled close in concern. They followed me to the living room, where we all spread out around the room. Niall stayed close to me even while we found seats on the couch. I was thankful for his presence. He’d caused me pain, but he was what I needed. There was something about him that made me feel safe, secure. He was strong and steady and there, and I knew, without a doubt, that I wouldn’t be able to get through the next few hours without him, let alone the funeral.

“I’m…” I faltered as a dozen eyes turned in my direction. Niall squeezed my hand comfortingly, and I took the strength he was providing. “I’m sorry for the way I’ve been this past week. It wasn’t fair to all of you for me to shut you out when all you wanted to do was help.”

Natalie picked at a stray thread in her socks. “Dee beat the Hell out of Garrett when we found out he gave you all that alcohol. And you’re right. We were trying to help. We were so fucking worried about you, sweetie. I mean, we definitely didn’t realise that all it would take was an Irish boy with some massive amount of guts to pick a lock and enter the lion’s den.”

“Yeah, I’m brave like that,” Niall said with a proud smile, his cheeks burning.

“Brave or stupid,” Amber corrected; Niall’s blush deepened as everyone laughed, and I leaned my head on his shoulder.

I sat back and listened as the others talked about various things: Natalie and DeDe were animated as they talked about the progress being made for their album; Amber told me how her family was doing; Brett didn’t speak much, but when he did, it was mostly in response to whatever Nat and Dee said. I glanced at the clock above the fireplace and sighed.

“Uh, guys. Sorry, but um, there’s something I gotta do. I’ll be back in a bit.”

I avoided looking at my friends as I made my way toward the front door. I slipped my feet into my Vans; when I turned around, Niall was standing behind me. He grinned sheepishly as I jumped in shock.

“Sorry, sorry. Did you want me to come with you?”

“Uh… I actually think this is something I have to do alone. Will you still be here when I get back?”

“I’ll be here as long as you need me.”

I smiled, hugging him close and pressing a kiss to his cheek when I pulled away. His hands slipped from my waist slowly as if he didn’t want to let go; I grabbed my keys and headed out to my truck. Before I reversed from the driveway, I glanced up at the house to see him standing in the doorway. He waved at me, and my heart fluttered in my chest. The drive only took twenty minutes. I kept the radio off, leaving myself in silence. I had to figure out what the Hell I was going to say when I got there. My behaviour the past week was atrocious and unacceptable, and I honestly couldn’t imagine being forgiven for it.

“He’s in their room.”

I hesitated but hugged Donna Rhodes, and her shoulders shook as she cried. I blinked rapidly to stop myself from crying right along with her. She stepped back, dabbed at her nose with a kleenex, and disappeared into the depths of the house. I heard the telltale clink of a teakettle being placed on the stovetop. I headed down the narrow hallway to the back of the house and stopped outside the twins’ old bedroom. When I pushed the door open, I found Alan sitting on the bed staring at photographs in a leather-bound album. He didn’t even look up as I sat down next to him.

“I see you still exist, then.”

I nudged him with my shoulder, leaned into him. “I am so, so, so, so, so sorry. I know everything has to be so damn hard on you guys. I shouldn’t have been so selfish.”

“Stop apologising.” He shrugged and flipped the page. “Everybody deals differently.”

“How are you holding up?”

“Good enough, I suppose.”

Silence blossomed between us, and I stared down at the Polaroid that took up most of the page. It was of the four of us, arm-in-arm outside of the local club with a gleaming trophy held aloft in Jem’s hands. That was the night we’d won Battle of the Bands ー shortly before we began recording demos to mail out dozens of management companies. The joy and pride on all of our faces were evident, even in an almost-four-year-old snapshot. We’d all agreed beforehand that that night was to be the determining factor in our career: If we won first place, we would start trying to get our name out there; if anything else, we’d go back to the starting point and try again. Apparently, the judges of the contest had thought we were ready. After just two years of constant, nonstop, gruelling practising, we’d won a competition against other, more-experienced bands. None of the other contestants had been too thrilled about losing to a quartet who hadn’t been part of the local scene for nearly half as long, but most of them had appreciated our talent and hard work, even though we were only in our ‘teens. That was the night we could see our dreams coming true. It was less than two weeks later that we got the phone calls from the management group we eventually signed with.

“I should’ve been there for you.”

Alan finally looked at me for the first time, but I avoided his gaze. “Erin, it’s all right. I understand. You’ve always had trouble handling things like this, much more than the rest of us.” He paused and pointed to a picture from the tour. Jem was in the forefront with Amber and Harry, but there in the background stood the Louis, Niall, and me, all three of us in the middle of talking; it must have been taken when Niall and I were still on speaking terms the first time. “You know, Jem was trying to get you and Niall together while we were on tour.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. He said something about how he could just see you two were perfect for each other.”

I snorted and turned the page. “I really don’t think it’s like that, Lenny.”

“Of course you don’t. Things are too fucked up right now. Give it time.”

We went through the photographs together for a little while longer. I couldn’t help but cry at all the images of Jem as a child, growing up side-by-side with Alan, but it wasn’t as painful as it had been all week. It wasn’t until we got to the final page. It hit me then that no new pictures of Jeremy Rhodes would ever be taken or placed in any photo albums.

.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.:.


I laid down on my bed and stared at the wall. Spending so much time in the twins’ bedroom reminded me too much of all the times I’d sneaked in through the window late at night just because I had a new song idea I didn’t want to forget by sleeping. All the times our writing sessions had run over, causing me to call my mom for permission to stay the night. All the time we’d gathered in their room to watch scary movies after long rehearsals and fell asleep basically in one pile. Now those nights were only our past. They would never happen again.

A light knock sounded at my door. I swallowed thickly then realised I wasn’t able to speak, not without the very real risk of bursting into tears if I opened my mouth. The door creaked open, and the bed dipped down behind me. Heat spread across my back as the scent of a familiar cologne filled the air. I rolled over to bury my face into Niall’s chest.

“How did it go, love?”

“All right, I guess,” I mumbled, voice muffled in his T-shirt. “Do you think I was selfish this past week?”

He was quiet for a few minutes; his fingers scratched lightly at my shoulderblades. Finally, he sighed and pulled back enough to look me in the eyes. “I think you were overwhelmed with grief and guilt, and you couldn’t process it well at the time. But no, I don’t think you were selfish.”

“I could never thank you enough for being here with me.”

“You don’t have to thank me,” he whispered as he held me closer.

We laid in silence; I let my thoughts wander to the events that had transpired with Niall. I felt immensely guilty for allowing myself to have any feelings for him ー any feelings at all, really ー especially since my best friend had died only a week previous. But if what Alan had told me was true, Jem would be upset if I didn’t at least take a chance on having the possibility of something more between Niall and myself. I breathed out deeply and pushed at Niall’s shoulders until he rolled onto his back with a quiet laugh; his arm came up to wrap around my back, and I pinched his side lightly before resting my head on his chest. My other arm draped over his stomach, and I slowly fell asleep listening to his heartbeat, so rhythmic and soothing.