City of Secrets
Previously: Natasha left a life behind when she moved to Caribou Canyon. She desperately misses that life, but is afraid that holding on to the past will prevent her from getting the answers she needs. When faced with a phone call from her former boyfriend, Natasha finds herself torn between the past and the present.
Natasha sat on her bed, staring at the phone in her hand, willing herself to take the call. Maybe if she waited long enough, Nick would just hang up. She squeezed her eyes shut, pushing away the pain and guilt that thought elicited. She was being childish, not to mention mean. If she’d just returned even one of his texts, she wouldn’t be in this situation now. She took a deep breath and put the phone to her ear. “Hey.”
“Hey? Really, Tasha?” Nick said, his irritation obvious. “You even managed to make that sound like you haven’t been ignoring me for the past few weeks.”
The sound of Nick’s voice—angry or not—sent cracks through the already broken pieces of Natasha’s heart. She said nothing, afraid she would cry if she opened her mouth. The lump in her throat was the size of a boulder.
“Tasha? Are you there?”
Tasha. Tears filled her eyes and the boulder in her throat grew to the size of a mountain. Tasha was what everyone back home called her. It was the nickname her fake parents had given her. She hadn’t told anyone in Caribou Canyon it was her preferred name, because she didn’t know who Tasha was anymore. That girl’s life was a lie. “I go by Natasha now,” she said, her voice coming out harsher than she’d intended. But at least it didn’t sound like she was about to cry.
“Oh, okay. That’s cool, I guess,” Nick said, clearly at a loss. Natasha could picture the look of surprise on his face; she’d always gotten angry when teachers called her Natasha.
“Yeah, it seemed like a good idea to change it. Tasha was what they called me and—you know. . .” she trailed off, not wanting to burden him with her problems.
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
Silence fell, during which Natasha’s mind wandered to places she didn’t want it to. She pictured Nick laying on his bed with the phone to his ear. The weather would be warm there—like it was supposed to be—so he was probably wearing a t-shirt, one that showed off the muscles in his arms. It might even be wrinkled and lifted up slightly, showing his stomach and the trail of light brown hair below his belly button. . . .
“Do you even know why I called?” he asked, his voice breaking through the image of herself laying next to him, trailing her fingers along his bare stomach.
She shook her head and wiped the tears from her eyes, but more just formed in their place “Uh, because we haven’t talked in a while?” Ouch, why don’t you dig the knife in deeper, Natasha? “Look, I know you’re mad, but—”
“Yeah, I’m mad, Tash—Natasha, but not because of what you did to me. I’m mad because of Meg. She called me crying.”
“What? She called you? Why?” she asked, momentarily distracted by an unwelcome surge of jealously that she had no right to feel. What was Meg calling Nick for? Meg had never liked Nick; according to her, he was boring and pretentious. Nick thought Meg was irresponsible and untrustworthy. It was only because of their shared connection with Natasha that they behaved civilly to one another.
“Do you even know what day it is?”
Yeah, it’s Thursday, she thought, but that couldn’t be what he meant. She grabbed her cell from where she’d stashed it in the nightstand. There were several texts and missed calls from both Nick and Meg. She ignored those, and looked at the date. Her heart sank to her stomach, even heavier with guilt than it had been before. Crap. Meg. She’d forgotten Meg’s birthday. The two of them had spent every birthday together since they were six. And this wasn’t just any birthday; it was Meg’s eighteenth birthday. Natasha had promised that though she couldn’t be there physically for this one, she would still do something special. And she’d completely forgotten.
I’m a horrible person, a terrible best friend. And she thought Laurel and the other cheerleaders were self-centered. They had nothing on Natasha. She took a deep breath and forced her voice to be steady. “Of course I know what day it is. It’s not over yet. I was just about to call her.”
Nick scoffed loud enough that the sound sent a tickling sensation through her ear. “Right. You never miss the morning birthday text. I know you, remember?”
The only thing worse than lying to someone you cared about was having them catch you in that lie. “I just—it’s been hard here.” Her voice cracked, giving away the fact that she was on the verge of tears.
“I know that, Tasha. Natasha. You know I’m never going to get used to that.”
Natasha couldn’t bring herself to reply. She wasn’t used to it either. She didn’t think she would get used to anything. Her life had turned into something completely unexpected, and nothing felt real anymore.
Nick continued, “I know things are hard for you right now.” His voice was softer, understanding, and somehow, that made her feel worse. “But it doesn’t excuse how you’re treating us. I don’t deserve to be punished, and neither does Meg.”
Natasha immediately went on the defensive. “What? How am I punishing you? I just need time, you know that.”
“And we’re giving it to you, but there’s a difference between needing space and completely shutting people out. You’re lying to us, breaking promises. Hell, you act like we never even existed. You don’t think that’s punishing us?”
His words punched her in the stomach, right where her guilty heart was resting. God, he was right. She swallowed again, painfully, because the lump was now the size of the Rocky Mountains. “I’m not trying to,” she said, her voice a whisper. If he hadn’t known she was crying before, he did now.
“Really? Because it doesn’t seem like that. Tasha—damn it—Natasha, what your par—Steven and Ellen did is messed up, but it’s not our fault. None of us did anything wrong, but you’re acting like we did.”
“Okay! Okay, Nick, I get it. I know. I’m a horrible person. You don’t—you don’t have to rub it in.” Shit. So much for keeping her cool.
“I never said you were a horrible person.”
“But I feel like it,” she admitted. “Nick, I’m sorry. I just—I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. Everything is so confusing. I don’t know how I’m supposed to think or feel, or, or anything.” It was the most honest thing she’d said to him, to anyone, in weeks.
“I know. I get it. I—” He stopped, though it was clear that he’d been about to say something else.
Silence fell. Natasha closed her eyes and leaned back against the headboard. It was an awkward silence. She didn’t know what to do or say. Part of her just wanted to hang up, but there was another part of her that liked feeling connected to him, even if it was painful and awkward. She remembered how easy it used to be, sitting in silence with him. They’d lay on his bed, sometimes touching, sometimes not; sometimes clothed, sometimes not, and just be. No talking. Just being together. Now that silence stretched between them, reminding her of the girl she used to be and the things she used to have.
Nick finally broke that silence. “How’s your first week been?”
She almost laughed. He probably thought he was making casual conversation, having no idea how loaded that question was. For a second, she imagined telling him everything. It would be so easy to confide in him. But she couldn’t. She’d kicked him out of her world; it wouldn’t be right to burden him with her problems. “I don’t know. Not bad, but weird. It’s really different here. I made the cheerleading squad.”
More silence. She wanted to ask him how his week was, but stopped herself. She’d broken up with him, would it be rude to ask him how his week was, knowing it was probably bad?
Again, it was Nick who broke the silence. “When you said you wanted to stay friends, did you mean it, or were you just trying to make dumping me easier?”
She cringed at the words. She wished he would say break up instead of dump. The latter sounded so much worse. “I—I meant it, Nick. You have to know that,” she said, her voice cracking. She was desperate for him to believe her, to know that she truly hadn’t wanted him out of her life. She still didn’t, but she couldn’t have him in it. He represented the past, and she couldn’t live in the past.
“Okay, but what about now? Do you still mean it?”
Crap. He had to go and ask the hard question, didn’t he? The tears were flowing freely now, and she didn’t bother to move the phone away. She wished she could lie, but she couldn’t. Not again. “No. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It’s not because I don’t want to be. I just can’t right now.”
“You said that when you dumped me. It still doesn’t make any sense. If you want me—as a friend or a boyfriend—then I’m right here.”
The pain in his voice was too much. It pulled at her insides. She felt like she was going to break apart. “It’s not that simple. It’s—”
“Save it. Whatever you say, I won’t understand.”
“Okay,” she said. There was nothing more she could say. She couldn’t make either of them feel better.
“If you change your mind, you know where to find me,” he said. She didn’t think he’d intended those words to hurt, but they did, because she knew he meant them. He would be there for her in an instant, despite the fact that she’d hurt him.
“Thanks,” she said, the word coming out a whisper.
“Yeah. Bye, Tasha.”
“Bye, Nick.” There was a click. It was a tiny sound, but the finality of it ripped a hole inside her.
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