Authors: Colleen Hoover
I’ve been out of the dating loop for a while, so if
is code for something else, I have no idea.
Surely a hug still just means a hug.
I can barely work social media, much less keep up with slang. I swear, I’m the most out-of-touch millennial I know. It’s as if I skipped right over Gen X and into Boomer territory. I’m a Boomer millennial. A
. Hell, my mother is a Boomer and probably knows more about these things than I do. She’s the one with a new boyfriend. I should call her and ask for pointers.
I brush my teeth, just in case a hug is a
. And then I change clothes twice, until I end up back in the pajamas I had on when I FaceTimed him. I’m trying way too hard to look like I’m not trying too hard. Sometimes being a woman is so dumb.
I’m pacing my apartment, anxious for his knock. I don’t know why I’m so nervous; I just spent three hours with him.
Well, one and a half if I don’t count the nap I took in the middle of our date.
Several dozen paces later, there’s a light tap on my apartment door. I know it’s Atlas, but I glance through the peephole anyway.
He even looks good all distorted through a peephole. I smile when I noticed he changed, too. Just his jacket, but still. He was wearing a thick black coat when we went out earlier, but now he’s wearing a simple gray hoodie.
Dear God. I like it so much.
I open the door, and Atlas leaves zero seconds between our first moment of eye contact and when his arms sweep me in for a hug.
He holds me so tight, it makes me want to ask him what was so bad about the last hour, but I don’t. I just quietly hug him back. I settle my cheek against his shoulder and revel in the comfort of him.
Atlas didn’t even step inside my apartment. We’re just standing in the doorway, as if a hug still just means a hug. His cologne is nice. It reminds me of summer, like he’s defying the cold. He seemed so concerned about smelling like garlic earlier, but all I could smell was this same cologne.
He lifts a hand to the back of my head and rests it there gently. “You okay?”
“I am now.” My response is muffled against him. “You?”
He sighs, but he doesn’t say he’s okay. He just leaves his answer hanging in his exhale, until he slowly releases me. He lifts a hand and runs his fingers down a piece of my hair. “I hope you get some sleep tonight.”
“You too,” I say.
“I’m not going home, I’m staying at the restaurant tonight.” He shakes that sentence off like he shouldn’t have said anything. “It’s a long story, and I need to get back. I’ll catch you up on everything tomorrow.”
I want to invite him in and make him give me all the
details right now, but I feel like he’d offer them up if he were in the mood. I’m certainly not in the mood to talk about what happened with Ryle, so I’m not going to force him to talk about whatever put a damper on
night. I just wish there was a way I could make it better.
I perk up when I think of something that might do the trick. “Do you need more reading material?”
His eyes glint with a twinge of excitement. “I do, actually.”
“Wait here.” I head to my bedroom and look in my box of things, searching for the next journal. When I find it, I take it back to him. “This one is a little more graphic,” I tease.
Atlas takes the journal with one hand and then slides his other arm around my lower back and tugs me against him. Then, quickly, he steals a peck. It’s so soft and fast, it doesn’t even fully register that he kissed me until it’s over.
Neither of us moves. It feels like it might hurt if we separate. Atlas pulls me even tighter against him and then he lowers his lips to the spot near my collarbone where my tattoo is hidden beneath my shirt. The tattoo he doesn’t even know is there. He kisses it unknowingly, and then, sadly, he leaves.
I close the door and press my forehead against it. I feel all the familiar feelings of a crush, but this time those feelings are accompanied by worry and hesitation, even though it’s Atlas, and Atlas is one of the good ones.
I blame Ryle for that. He took what little trust I had left in men thanks to my father, and he stripped me of it.
But I think this crush is a sign that Atlas might be able to give back what my father and Ryle took from me. My stomach moves from the flutters Atlas left me with to what feels like a six-foot drop on that thought, because I know how that would make Ryle feel.
The more joy I get from my interactions with Atlas, the more dread I feel about having to break the news to Ryle.
When I was in the military, I was stationed with a friend who had family from Boston. His aunt and uncle were getting ready to retire and wanted to sell their restaurant. It was called Milla’s, and when I visited it on leave one year, I absolutely fell in love with the place. I can say it was the food, or the fact that it was located in Boston, but the truth is, I fell in love with it because of the preserved tree growing in the center of the main dining room.
The tree reminded me of Lily.
If anything is going to remind someone of their first love, trees are probably the last thing you want as a reminder. They’re everywhere. Which is probably why I’ve thought about Lily every day since I was eighteen, but that could also be because I still, to this day, feel like I owe her my life.
I’m not sure if it was the tree, or the fact that the restaurant came almost fully stocked and staffed, but I felt a pull to buy it when it became available. It wasn’t my goal to own a restaurant right out of the military. I had planned to work as a chef to gain experience, but when this opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t walk away from the prospect. I used the money I saved up from my time as a Marine, and I
secured a business loan, bought the restaurant, changed the name, and created a whole new menu.
Sometimes I feel guilty for the success Bib’s has had—like I haven’t paid my dues. I didn’t just inherit the staff, who already knew what they were doing, but I inherited customers as well. I didn’t build it from the ground up, which is why I feel a heavy amount of imposter syndrome when people congratulate me on the success of Bib’s.
That’s why I opened Corrigan’s. I don’t know that I was trying to prove anything to anyone other than myself, but I wanted to know that I could do it. I wanted the challenge of creating something from nothing and watching it flourish and grow. Like what Lily wrote in her journal about why she liked growing things in her garden when we were teenagers.
Maybe that’s why I feel more protective of Corrigan’s than I do over Bib’s, because I created it from nothing. That might also be the reason I put more effort into protecting it. Corrigan’s has a working security system and is a hell of a lot harder to break into than Bib’s.
Which is why I chose to spend tonight at Bib’s, even though Corrigan’s is due to be broken into if we’re going by the rotating schedule this kid has developed. The first night was Bib’s, the second night was Corrigan’s, he took a few days off, and then the third and fourth incidents were at Bib’s. I may be wrong, but I have a feeling he’ll show up here again before going back to Corrigan’s, simply because he’s had more success getting into the less secure of the two places. I just hope tonight isn’t one of the nights he decides not to show up.
He’ll definitely show up here if he’s hungry. Bib’s is his
better bet for food, which is why I’m hiding on the far side of the dumpster, waiting. I pulled over one of the tattered chairs the smokers use on their breaks, and I’ve been passing time by reading. Lily’s words have kept me company. A little too well, because there have been several times I’ve been so engrossed in this journal, I forget that I’m supposed to be on alert.
I don’t know for certain if the kid who has been vandalizing my restaurants is the same kid who shares a mother with me, but the timing makes sense. And the targeted insults that he’s been spray painting make sense if they’re coming from a kid who despises me. I can’t think of anyone else who would have a good reason to be angry with me more than a little boy who feels abandoned by his older brother.
It’s almost two in the morning. I check the security app on my phone for Corrigan’s, but there’s nothing new happening over there, either.
I go back to reading the journal, even though the last couple of entries have been painful to read. I didn’t realize how much my leaving for Boston impacted Lily when she was younger. In my mind at that age, I felt like an inconvenience in her life. I had no idea how much she felt I
to her life. Reading the letters she wrote back then has been a lot more difficult than I expected it to be. I thought it would be fun to read her thoughts, but when I started reading them, I remembered how cruel our childhoods were to us. I don’t think about it much anymore because I’m so far removed from the life I lived back then, but I’m being thrown back into those moments from every angle this week, it seems. The information in the journal entries, my mother, finding
out I have a brother—it all feels like everything I’ve tried running from has formed a slow leak that’s threatening to sink me.
But then there’s Lily and her impeccable timing being back in my life. She always seems to show up when I need a lifeline.
I flip through the rest of the journal and see that I’m already halfway through the last entry she made. I have very little recollection of that night because of the dreadful way it ended. Part of me doesn’t even want to experience it from her point of view, but I can’t not know how I left her feeling for all those years.
I open the last entry and pick up where I left off.
He took my hands in his and told me he was leaving sooner than he planned for the military, but that he couldn’t leave without telling me thank you. He told me he’d be gone for four years and that the last thing he wanted for me was to be a sixteen-year-old girl not living my life because of a boyfriend I never got to see or hear from.
The next thing he said made his blue eyes tear up until they looked clear. He said, “Lily. Life is a funny thing. We only get so many years to live it, so we have to do everything we can to make sure those years are as full as they can be. We shouldn’t waste time on things that might happen someday, or maybe even never.”
I knew what he was saying. That he was leaving for the military and he didn’t want me to hold on to him while he was gone. He wasn’t really breaking up with me because we weren’t ever really together. We’d just been two
people who helped each other when we needed it and got our hearts fused together along the way.
It was hard, being let go by someone who had never really grabbed hold of me completely in the first place. In all the time we’ve spent together, I think we both sort of knew this wasn’t a forever thing. I’m not sure why, because I could easily love him that way. I think maybe under normal circumstances, if we were together like typical teenagers and he had an average life with a home, we could be that kind of couple. The kind who comes together so easily and never experiences a life where cruelty sometimes intercepts.
I didn’t even try to get him to change his mind that night. I feel like we have the kind of connection that even the fires of hell couldn’t sever. I feel like he could go spend his time in the military and I’ll spend my years being a teenager and then it will all fall back into place when the timing is right.
“I’m going to make a promise to you,” he said. “When my life is good enough for you to be a part of it, I’ll come find you. But I don’t want you to wait around for me, because that might never happen.”
I didn’t like that promise, because it meant one of two things. Either he thought he might never make it out of the military alive, or he didn’t think his life would ever be good enough for me.
His life was already good enough for me, but I nodded my head and forced a smile. “If you don’t come back for me, I’ll come for you. And it won’t be pretty, Atlas Corrigan.”
He laughed at my threat. “Well, it won’t be too hard to find me. You know exactly where I’ll be.”
I smiled. “Where everything is better.”
He smiled back. “In Boston.”
And then he kissed me.
Ellen, I know you’re an adult and know all about what comes next, but I still don’t feel comfortable telling you what happened over those next couple of hours. Let’s just say we both kissed a lot. We both laughed a lot. We both loved a lot. We both breathed a lot. A lot. And we both had to cover our mouths and be as quiet and still as we could so we wouldn’t get caught.
When we were finished, he held me against him, skin to skin, hand to heart. He kissed me and looked straight in my eyes.
“I love you, Lily. Everything you are. I love you.”
I know those words get thrown around a lot, especially by teenagers. A lot of times prematurely and without much merit. But when he said them to me, I knew he wasn’t saying it like he was in love with me. It wasn’t that kind of “I love you.”
Imagine all the people you meet in your life. There are so many. They come in like waves, trickling in and out with the tide. Some waves are much bigger and make more of an impact than others. Sometimes the waves bring with them things from deep in the bottom of the sea and they leave those things tossed onto the shore. Imprints against the grains of sand that prove the waves had once been there, long after the tide recedes.
That was what Atlas was telling me when he said “I
love you.” He was letting me know that I was the biggest wave he’d ever come across. And I brought so much with me that my impressions would always be there, even when the tide rolled out.
After he said he loved me, he told me he had a birthday present for me. He pulled out a small brown bag. “It isn’t much, but it’s all I could afford.”
I opened the bag and pulled out the best present I’d ever received. It was a magnet that said “Boston” on the top. At the bottom in tiny letters, it said, “Where everything is better.” I told him I would keep it forever, and every time I look at it I’ll think of him.
When I started out this letter, I said my sixteenth birthday was one of the best days of my life. Because up until that second, it was.
It was the next few minutes that weren’t.
Before Atlas had shown up that night, I wasn’t expecting him, so I didn’t think to lock my bedroom door. My father heard me in there talking to someone, and when he threw open my door and saw Atlas in bed with me, he was angrier than I’d ever seen him. And Atlas was at a disadvantage by not being prepared for what came next.
I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live. Being completely helpless as my father came down on him with a baseball bat. The sound of bones snapping was the only thing piercing through my screams.
I still don’t know who called the police. I’m sure it was my mother, but it’s been six months and we still haven’t talked about that night. By the time the police got to my
bedroom and pulled my father off of him, I didn’t even recognize Atlas, he was covered in so much blood.
I was hysterical.
Not only did they have to take Atlas away in an ambulance, they also had to call an ambulance for me because I couldn’t breathe. It was the first and only panic attack I’ve ever had.
No one would tell me where he was or if he was even okay. My father wasn’t even arrested for what he’d done. Word got out that Atlas had been staying in that old house and that he had been homeless. My father became revered for his heroic act—saving his little girl from the homeless boy who manipulated her into having sex with him.
My father said I’d shamed our whole family by giving the town something to gossip about. And let me tell you, they still gossip about it. I heard Katie on the bus today telling someone she tried to warn me about Atlas. She said she knew he was bad news from the moment she laid eyes on him. Which is crap. If Atlas had been on the bus with me, I probably would have kept my mouth shut and been mature about it like he tried to teach me to be. Instead, I was so angry, I turned around and told Katie she could go to hell. I told her Atlas was a better human than she’d ever be and if I ever heard her say one more bad thing about him, she’d regret it.
She just rolled her eyes and said, “Jesus, Lily. Did he brainwash you? He was a dirty, thieving homeless kid who was probably on drugs. He used you for food and sex and now you’re defending him?”
She’s lucky the bus stopped at my house right then. I grabbed my backpack and walked off the bus, then went inside and cried in my room for three hours straight. Now my head hurts, but I knew the only thing that would make me feel better is if I finally got it all out on paper. I’ve been avoiding writing this letter for six months now.
No offense, Ellen, but my head still hurts. So does my heart. Maybe even more right now than it did yesterday. This letter didn’t help one damn bit.
I think I’m going to take a break from writing to you for a while. Writing to you reminds me of him, and it just all hurts too much. Until he comes back for me, I’m just going to keep pretending to be okay. I’ll keep pretending to swim, when really all I’m doing is floating. Barely keeping my head above water.
I close the journal after reading the last page.
I don’t know what to feel because I feel everything. Rage, love, sadness, happiness.
I’ve always hated that I couldn’t remember most of that night no matter how hard I tried to think back on every word that was said between us. The fact that Lily wrote it all down is a gift—albeit a sad one.
There were so many things about that time in my life that I was afraid she was too fragile to hear. I only wanted to protect her from the negative stuff going on in my life, but reading her words has shown me that she didn’t need protecting from it. If anything, she could have helped me through it.
It makes me want to write her another letter, but even more, it makes me want to be in her presence, talking about these things face-to-face. I know we’re taking things slow, but the more I’m around her, the more impatient I am to be around her again.
I stand up to take the journal inside and to grab something to drink for the wait, but I pause as soon as I come to a stand. There’s a streetlight at the other end of the alley creating a spotlight on the building, and there’s a shadow moving across the light. The shadow travels across the building in the other direction, as if whatever is casting the shadow is coming my way. I back up a step so that I can remain hidden.