Dammit, though, he couldn't seem to actually do it.
Not all the way.
She gave August a look. One that suggested he was truly in the dark - and he didn't like that. Didn't like the possibility that he was wrong about this woman. Mainly because it was too late to change his actions now. He'd always have to wonder what the hell he could have done differently with Natalie Vos. But at least he could walk away from this phase of his life knowing he'd done his best for Sam. That's all he had.
"Did you ever want to get to know me? Or was it just ..
" Her attention dropped fleetingly to his zipper, then away, but it was enough to make him feel like he was back in that middle school pep rally trying not to get excited. "Just about sex?"
What the hell was he supposed to say?
That he'd seen her across the room at that stupid
Wine Down Napa event and felt like he'd had an arrow shot into his chest by a flying baby? That his palms had sweat because of a woman for the first time ever that night? He'd already been in that Viennese countryside holding a picnic basket in one hand and an acoustic guitar in the other. God, she was so beautiful and interesting and fucking hilarious. Where had she been all his life?
Oh, but then somehow it all went to shit. He'd let his pride get in the way of . .. what? What would have happened if he'd just taken her verbal disapproval of his wine on the chin and moved forward? What if he hadn't equated it to disapproval of his best friend's aspirations?
Was there any use wondering about any of this shit now?
A crank turned in his rib cage as she moved out of earshot. Too far to hear him over the event music that had started up. Definitely too far to touch, so why were his fingers itching for her skin? His chances with Natalie were subzero now. Just like his chance at succeeding as a vintner. With a final long look at the one who got away, August cursed, climbed into his truck, and tore out of the parking lot, ignoring the strong sense of leaving something undone.
The fact that August Cates planned to leave St.
Helena imminently had nothing to do with her sudden urgency to leave, too. Nothing whatsoever. That big, incompetent buffoon and his decisions had no bearing on her life. So why the pit in her stomach? It had been there since he approached the table to have his wine judged yesterday. The man had a chip the size of Denver on his shoulder, but he always had kind of a . .. softness in his eyes. A relaxed, observant quality that said I've seen everything. I can handle anything.
But it was missing yesterday.
And it caught Natalie off guard how much it threw her.
He'd always considered himself a dog person. No, he was a dog person. He just liked this one cat.
Famous last words.
Natalie spun around and he gulped. Damn. She always looked hot, but there was something extra special about her today.
"You've got a bunch of black shit on your eyes."
Her whole body sort of deflated at the sight of him.
Complete exasperation in human form. "It's eyeliner, caveman."
"Why are you wearing so much of it?"
Her shoulder bounced up and down. "Maybe I had a date."
Rudely, his esophagus tied itself into a knot. "With who?"
God, he hated the idea of her on a date more than he hated . . . anything. Just because they weren't dating didn't mean she could just date anyone else, willy-nilly.
Because that wasn't irrational or anything, right?
"My only hope is that you are better at repairing wounds than you are at making wine."
"Considering I've given myself stitches in a dust storm without painkillers - twice - I'd say I'm up for patching your kitty cat scratches."
It wasn't that he was satisfied when her step faltered, it was that ... well, he was sick and tired of this woman seeing him as incapable and hapless because he didn't know how to ferment some fucking grapes. Was it important at this stage for Natalie to perceive him as capable? No. He was on the verge of leaving. And yet he couldn't help wanting that approval from her. More than he had a right to.
"How do I know vou're not on an undercover mission?" Natalie narrowed her eyes over the rim of her mug. "Are you wearing a wire, Welch?"
Without a moment's hesitation, her brother's girlfriend lifted the Stanford T-shirt to reveal a pair of rainbow panties and two very impressive tatas. She dropped the shirt again after a moment and Natalie hummed into a sip. "What kind of services are you offering?"
"Floral arrangements, obviously. But also . .." Hallie stepped forward, coming farther into the light. "Literally anything nefarious. Namely bachelorette party planning. I got you."
"You're a little nuts, aren't you, Hallie?"
"I wrote your brother secret admirer letters and got jealous when he wrote me back."
Wait. I thought we were going to talk about wedding stuff," August boomed, following behind her, his giant, wet feet slapping on the floorboards. "What time are we meeting at the courthouse on Saturday?"
"What?" She looked back over her shoulder to find him stricken. "Just like that, the whole thing is off? I blew it?"
Every once in a while, a comment slipped through the cracks that made her very aware that he was lovable just under the surface. Why couldn't he keep that fact hidden? It made her want to turn and walk into his stupid muscular arms and whack him in the head with an encyclopedia at the exact same time.
And, dammit, her anger at him took a drastic nosedive.
It is a universal truth that people don't make the best decisions while drinking alcohol. In fact, people came to places like this with the express intention of making questionable decisions. To stop being responsible for a while and let fate stir the pot. Case in point, axe throwing in a bar. As a man who'd undergone extensive weapons training and knew how shit could go wrong in the blink of an eye, he wanted to carry Natalie out of there over his shoulder. The fact that she was anywhere near several blades was unsettling him to a degree that couldn't be ignored.
The increasing protectiveness he felt for his fiancé told August ..
This wasn't temporary.
Julian shook his head. Sighed. "You're in love with her."
Suddenly, August couldn't swallow.
The music swelled in his ears.
Was he in love with Natalie? No idea. If the key to her happiness was at the bottom of the ocean, he'd strap on some flippers and goggles to dive down and get it. If she showed any signs of illness, even a common cold, he would consider bringing her to the ER. If she asked him to dress like Zack Morris at Halloween so she could dress like Kelly Kapowski . . . he'd already have suggested it first. Did all of that equal love?
To him? Yes.
He loved her. Really, really bad.
- Tahereh Mafi
This planet is a broken bone that didn’t set right, a hundred pieces of crystal glued together. We’ve been shattered and reconstructed, told to make an effort every single day to pretend we still function the way we’re supposed to. But it’s a lie, it’s all a lie.
“Bullshit.” He laughs a short, sharp, angry laugh. “All you do is sit around and think about your feelings. You’ve got problems. Boo-freaking-hoo,” he says. “Your parents hate you and it’s so hard but you have to wear gloves for the rest of your life because you kill people when you touch them. Who gives a shit?” He’s breathing hard enough for me to hear him. “As far as I can tell, you’ve got food in your mouth and clothes on your back and a place to pee in peace whenever you feel like it. Those aren’t problems. That’s called living like a king. And I’d really appreciate it if you’d grow the hell up and stop walking around like the world crapped on your only roll of toilet paper. Because it’s stupid,” he says, barely reining in his temper. “It’s stupid, and it’s ungrateful. You don’t have a clue what everyone else in the world is going through right now. You don’t have a clue, Juliette. And you don’t seem to give a damn, either.”
I swallow, so hard.
“Now I am trying,” he says, “to give you a chance to fix things. I keep giving you opportunities to do things differently. To see past the sad little girl you used to be—the sad little girl you keep clinging to—and stand up for yourself. Stop crying. Stop sitting in the dark counting out all your individual feelings about how sad and lonely you are. Wake up,” he says. “You’re not the only person in this world who doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. You’re not the only one with daddy issues and severely screwed-up DNA. You can be whoever the hell you want to be now. You’re not with your shitty parents anymore. You’re not in that shitty asylum, and you’re no longer stuck being Warner’s shitty little experiment. So make a choice,” he says. “Make a choice and stop wasting everyone’s time. Stop wasting your own time. Okay?”
Shame is pooling in every inch of my body.
Heat has flamed its way up my core, singeing me from the inside out. I’m so horrified, so terrified to hear the truth in his words.
Because sometimes you see yourself—you see yourself the way you could be—the way you might be if things were different. And if you look too closely, what you see will scare you, it’ll make you wonder what you might do if given the opportunity. You know there’s a different side of yourself you don’t want to recognize, a side you don’t want to see in the daylight. You spend your whole life doing everything to push it down and away, out of sight, out of mind. You pretend that a piece of yourself doesn’t exist.
You live like that for a long time.
For a long time, you’re safe.
And then you’re not.
Castle is beaming, his eyes bright with something that might be pride. “We will be with you every step of the way, Ms. Ferrars. You can count on it.”
And I realize this is probably what I’m meant to do. Maybe this is exactly why I’m here.
Maybe I’m just supposed to die.
I can see what’s in their eyes because I’m beginning to remember what it feels like.
It’s like a drop of honey, a field of tulips blooming in the springtime. It’s fresh rain, a whispered promise, a cloudless sky, the perfect punctuation mark at the end of a sentence.
And it’s the only thing in the world keeping me afloat.
Us Against You
- Fredrik Backman
We have an ice rink but not much else. But on the other hand, as people usually say here: What the hell else do you need?
People driving through say that Beartown doesn’t live for anything but hockey, and some days they may be right. Sometimes people have to be allowed to have something to live for in order to survive everything else. We’re not mad, we’re not greedy; say what you like about Beartown, but the people here are tough and hardworking. So we built a hockey team that was like us, that we could be proud of, because we weren’t like you. When people from the big cities thought something seemed too hard, we just grinned and said, “It’s supposed to be hard.” Growing up here wasn’t easy; that’s why we did it, not you. We stood tall, no matter the weather. But then something happened, and we fell.
As a child he always loved the summer, when the foliage lets boys hide in trees without being seen from the ground. He’s always had a lot to hide from, as anyone does who’s different in a locker room where everyone learns that you have to be a single unit, a clan, a team, in order to win together. So Benji became what they needed: the wild one. So feared that once, when he was wounded, the coach put him on the bench anyway. He didn’t play a single minute, but the opposing team still didn’t dare lay a finger on Kevin.
Fatima told Ann-Katrin that one of the first things she learned to say in the Beartown dialect, where she had just arrived with a little boy in her arms, was “That’s going to be difficult.” Fatima loved the people here because they didn’t try to pretend that the world was uncomplicated. Life is tough, it hurts, and people admitted that. But then they grinned and said, “What the hell? It’s supposed to be hard. Otherwise every bugger in the big cities would be able to do it!”
For many years she was pleased that Bobo was such a softie. Other boys were embarrassed when their mothers kissed them on the forehead in front of their friends, but not hers. He was the sort of boy who would say, “Your hair looks nice today, Mom.” Now she wishes he was tougher. Colder. Maybe he’d have been able to handle it better.
“I’m not well, Bobo . . . ,” she whispers.
Bobo cries when she tells him, but she cries more. Bobo isn’t the little boy who used to jump up into her arms anymore; he’s big enough now to have space in his chest for the greatest sorrow and tall and strong enough to pick his mother up and carry her home after she’s told him she’s going to die. She whispers against his neck, “You’ve always been the best big brother in the world. You’re going to have to be even better now.”
That evening she hears him read Harry Potter to his little brother and sister. That night Hog makes some weak tea and Bobo comes into the bathroom and holds his mom’s hair when she throws up. When she’s lying on her bed, her son wipes her cheeks and says, “Do you want to hear something silly? You know you’re always telling me I’ll never find a girlfriend because my demands are too high? That’s your fault. Because I want someone who looks at me the way you and Dad look at each other.”
Ann-Katrin presses Bobo’s big, dumb lummox’s head tight to her forehead. She would have loved to see him get married. Become a dad. Life is so damn, damn, damn tough sometimes that it’s almost unbearable. Even if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Children notice when their parents lose each other in the very smallest ways, in something as insignificant as a single word, such as “your.” Maya texts them each morning now and pretends it’s to stop them worrying about her, even though it’s actually the reverse. She’s used to them calling each other “Mom” and “Dad.” As in “Mom didn’t really mean you were grounded for a thousand years, darling,” or “Dad didn’t demolish your snowman on purpose, he just tripped, darling.” But suddenly one day, almost incidentally, one of them writes, “Can’t you call your mom, she’s worries so much when you’re not home?” And the other writes, “Remember, your dad and I love you more than anything.” Four letters can reveal the end of a marriage. “Your.” As if they didn’t belong to each other anymore.
Maya sits on an island in a lake far out in the forest and writes songs about it, because she can’t bear to be at home and watch it happen.
Amat’s hands are shaking. Lifa walks over and hugs him as though they’re eight years old again. He kisses his hair and whispers, “We’ll come running with you. Every mad sod here will come running with you all summer, if that’s what it takes.”
He’s not joking. Lifa runs up and down along the road beside Amat that night until he collapses, and after Amat has carried his friend home on his back, Zacharias starts running in his place. When he can’t run anymore, others kids show up. Two dozen certifiable lunatics who promise Amat not to smoke and drink as long as he needs someone to train with.
In ten years’ time, when Amat is playing hockey professionally, he won’t have forgotten this. Some of the guys here will have died of overdoses, others will have died violently, some will be in prison, and some will just have made a mess of their lives. But some will have lives—big, proud lives. And they will all know that here, for just one summer, they were running for something. Amat will be interviewed on television in English, and the reporter will ask where he grew up, and he will say, “I’m from the Hollow.” And every single bastard here will know that he remembers them.
Sune scratches his stomach. As he always says, we only pretend hockey is complicated, because it isn’t really. When you strip away all the nonsense surrounding it, the game is simple: everyone gets a stick; there are two nets, two teams. Us against you.
In a cabin on a campsite sits a man in a blue polo shirt. He has lessons to prepare, a teaching job he has spent several years training for, but can’t get anything done. He sits in the little kitchen with a book about philosophy on the table in front of him, staring out through the window and hoping to see a young man with sad eyes and a wild soul. But Benji doesn’t come. He’s lost. Today the teacher looked him in the eye and told him he was a mistake, even though the mistake was the teacher’s.
Everyone in this town knows that Benji is dangerous, because he strikes hardest. Yet few people seem to appreciate that everything about him does just that—strike hardest, beat hardest—the whole time. Including his heart.
“Thanks,” Zackell says, and is already out in the corridor before Peter has time to call out, “What do you want rope for? You’re not going to hang anyone, are you?”
Then he says it again, with genuine concern in his voice: “ZACKELL! YOU’RE NOT GOING TO HANG ANYONE, ARE YOU? WE’VE GOT ENOUGH PROBLEMS AS IT IS!!!”
When school is over for the day, Maya and Ana change into tracksuits and run into the forest. It’s Ana’s idea, and a weird one, because Maya has always hated running, and even if Ana has spent almost all her life running through the forest, she’s never done it specifically as exercise. Never in circles. Even so, Ana forces Maya out this autumn, because she knows that even if Kevin is no longer in Beartown, they still have to reclaim the things he stole. Twilight. Solitude. The courage to wear earbuds when it’s dark, the freedom to not look over your shoulder the whole time.
They run only where there are lights. They don’t say anything but are both thinking the same thing: guys never think about light, it just isn’t a problem in their lives. When guys are scared of the dark, they’re scared of ghosts and monsters, but when girls are scared of the dark, they’re scared of guys.
“I don’t want you to remember me as an absentee mom. Especially not now. I want you to feel that you’ve got a . . . normal mom.”
Maya puts her spoon down at that. Leans across the table. “Stop it, Mom. You know, I’m so damn proud of your career! Everyone else had a normal mom, but I had a role model. All the other moms have to say to their kids that they can be whatever they want when they’re older, but you don’t have to say that, because you’re demonstrating it every day.”
“Darling, I—” Kira begins, but her voice breaks.
Maya wipes her tears and whispers, “Mom. You taught me that I don’t have to have dreams. I can have goals.”
Benji is standing in Adri’s kennels; the dogs are playing in the snow around his feet. They don’t care, and he wishes no one else did either. He doesn’t want to change the world, doesn’t want anyone to have to adapt themselves to him, he just wants to play hockey. Go into the locker room without it falling silent because nobody dares to mess around anymore. He just wants all the usual things: sticks and ice, a puck and two nets, the desire to win, to struggle. You against us, with everything we’ve got. But that’s over now. Benji is no longer one of them.
Perhaps one day he’ll find words for that feeling of being different. How physical it is. Exclusion is a form of exhaustion that eats its way into your skeleton. People who are like everyone else, who belong to the norm, the majority, can’t possibly understand it. How can they?
Benji has heard all the arguments, he’s sat next to adults in the stands and in buses on the way to tournaments, people who say, “There are no homosexuals in ice hockey.” There were jokes, all the usual stuff, but that never really affected Benji. It was the little choices of vocabulary that everyone seemed to find obvious that cut deepest, when “fag” was used as an insult. “You play like fags!” “Fag referee!” “Damn fag coffee machine doesn’t work!” Three little letters used to describe weakness, stupidity, anything that didn’t function properly. Anything that was defective.
Naturally there were adults who never said the word. Some of them said other things instead. They didn’t even think about it, but Benji stored up tiny splinters of conversations for years. “They don’t bother with hockey. How would that even work? With the locker room and everything? Are we going to have three different locker rooms, just in case?” The people saying these things were ordinary parents, kind and generous people who did all they could for their children’s hockey team. They didn’t vote for extremist parties, they didn’t wish anyone dead, they’d never dream of being violent. They just said obvious, self-evident things such as, “People like that probably don’t feel at home in hockey, they probably like other things. You have to bear in mind that hockey’s a tough sport!” Sometimes they said it straight out: “Hockey’s a sport for men!” They said “men,” but even as a small boy Benji would stand alongside in silence, knowing that what they actually meant was “real men.”
It’s only words. Only letters. Only a human being.
Benji doesn’t train with his team today, because he knows he’s no longer one of them. He doesn’t know who he ought to be instead. And he doesn’t know if he wants that.
Elisabeth Zackell bounces into Peter Andersson’s office. “Did you see the tryout?” she blurts out.
“Yes,” Peter says.
“Can he play?” Zackell asks.
“Can you control him?” Peter asks.
“No! That’s the whole point!” Zackell says jubilantly.
She looks happy. It gives Peter a headache.
Why does anyone love team sports? Because we want to be part of a group? For some people the answer is simply that a team is a family. For anyone who needs an extra one or never had one in the first place.
Benji doesn’t move. Teemu takes a long, furious breath through his nostrils and whispers, “For fuck’s sake. You went drinking with me. You fought alongside me . . .”
Benji doesn’t try to wipe his tears. “Go to hell, Teemu.”
And the leader of the Pack lowers his head. Just for a fleeting second. “You’re a hard bastard, Benji, no one can deny that. But we’re not going to let this town go all . . . you know . . . rainbow flags and shit . . .”
Benji sniffs. “I’ve never asked for that.”
What makes us shout out loud with joy? What makes us cry? What are our happiest memories, our worst days, our deepest disappointments? Who did we stand alongside? What’s a family? What’s a team?
How many times in life are we completely happy?
How many chances do we get to love something that’s almost pointless entirely unconditionally?
“The papers are writing about you. Reporters are calling people in town, asking about you. Goddamn media assholes with their stupid politics, you know what they want, don’t you? They want to get one of us to say something stupid so they can show that we’re just stupid, bigoted rednecks. So they can go back to the big city on their high horse and feel so morally superior—”
Benji’s cheeks are bleeding on the inside where he’s bitten them. He whispers, “I’m sorry . . .”
Teemu’s knuckles turn slowly red again as the blood courses back into them. He replies, “It’s our club.”
“I know,” Benji replies.
Teemu’s fists slowly unfurl. He rubs his cheeks with the palms of his hands. “You say you can beat these bastards . . . right now we’re 4–0 down. So . . . if you win this game, I’ll buy you a beer afterward.”
Benji’s face is wet, but his eyes are blazing when he replies, “I didn’t think you drank with people like me.”
The sigh that emerges from Teemu’s lungs fills the whole corridor, bounces off the locked doors, and echoes off the low ceiling. “For fuck’s sake, Benji. Do I have to drink with all the damn queers now? Can’t I start with just one?”
Amat is a whirlwind, Bobo fights as though it’s the last game of his life, Benji is the best player on the ice. At one point toward the end of the game, Vidar comes close to fighting one of the opponents, but Benji skates across the ice as fast as he can to hold the goalie back, stopping him from throwing the punch.
“If you fight, you’ll be suspended! We need you!” Benji yells.
“He’s talking shit!” Vidar yells back, pointing to the other player.
“What’s he saying?” Benji asks.
“That you’re a fag!”
Benji gives him a long stare. “I am a fag, Vidar.”
Vidar hits the bear on his chest. “But you’re our fag!”
Benji looks down at the ice and lets out a long sigh. That’s the most dysfunctional compliment he’s ever received. “Can we just play hockey now?” he begs.
“Okay,” Vidar mutters.
So they play. Benji scores twice. Vidar doesn’t let a single goal in. When Benji gets to the Bearskin that evening, there’s a beer waiting for him on the bar. He drinks it, with Vidar and Teemu standing beside him. They manage to make it feel almost like normal. Perhaps it will be, one day.
It’s so easy to place your hope in people. To think that the world can change overnight. We demonstrate after an attack, we donate money after a disaster, we lay our hearts bare online. But for every step forward we take, we take an almost equally large step back. Seen over time, every change is so slow that it’s barely visible when it’s happening.
“Were you in love with him?” he suddenly snarls.
“WHAT?” Benji shouts, spitting blood onto the snow.
They’re standing a few feet apart, their lungs heaving. William puts his hands on his knees. One of his fingers is broken, and his nose is bleeding like a tap. He lowers his voice, as pain and exhaustion hit him. “Were you in love with Kevin?” he pants.
Benji says nothing for several minutes. He’s got blood in his hair and on his hands; it’s impossible to tell where he’s bleeding from and where he’s just wiped it off. “Yes.”
It’s the first time in his life that Benji has admitted that. William closes his eyes and feels his nose throb as he tries to breathe through it. “If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have hated you so much,” he whispers.