My eyes opened. I yawned and looked at my alarm clock. 1:56 AM. In this house, everyone would probably be asleep. My former night owl Dad had adjusted to going to bed early. And I guess I had, too.
My throat was dry, so even though I was sure I could fall back asleep if I closed my eyes, I got up, stretched, and headed downstairs. My stomach growled, and I considered having a snack. But when I reached the bottom of the stairs, I was brought out of my own head by the sound of someone crying. All the lights were off, but I could hear her. She was trying to be quiet, but I could hear her.
Clare was sitting at the kitchen island, facing away from me. She had her head in her hands. She shook with every soft sob. I glanced back up the stairs wondering if I shouldn't interfere, but I knew I couldn't stop myself. I walked forward and touched her shoulder. "Clare…" I whispered. Clare jumped out of the chair as fast as lightning. "Whoa!" I said backing up.
Clare swallowed. "Jake?" she said like she was trying to convince herself. "You scared me."
"Yeah," I said. "It's just me." Clare nodded and wiped at her eyes. I waited for her to compose herself, before I said anything else. "Clare, are you-?"
"Oh, God," Clare said, suddenly. "You didn't hear… I didn't wake you up, did I?"
"No," I said. "I just wanted a drink." My stomach growled again. "And maybe a snack," I admitted.
"You and food." Clare shook her head with a laugh, but it was weak. "I'll warm you up something." She turned and went over to the fridge.
"Clare, are you-?" I started again.
"What are you hungry for?" she asked in front of the open fridge. I couldn't tell if she was acting like a devoted wife or just a mother. I just knew it was an act.
"Uh, whatever," I said. "It doesn't matter."
Clare grabbed something and went to the cupboard for a dish. I tried to come closer to help her, but she shrugged away from me. "I'll get it," she said, not looking at me. "Just sit down."
"Clare," I sighed. "Forget the food." She still wouldn't look at me, and I heard a sniffle. "What's wrong?"
"I'm fine," Clare said, automatically.
"Are you?" I asked.
She turned and crossed her arms over her chest, as if daring me to question her words.
"You were down here crying in the dark," I said, simply.
"I have a right to cry in my own home," Clare said.
"Is it Eli?" I asked, reluctantly, not really wanting to know.
"No," Clare said, plainly. Her face was so serious. I'd certainly seen Clare upset, but this seemed different.
"Then, what is it?" I asked.
"I think I'll go to bed," Clare said. She walked quickly past me to the stairs. "Goodnight."
"Night…" I mumbled to myself, alone in the dark.
I put away the food, not really hungry anymore, got a drink, and went to back up to bed. All I could think of was Clare on the other side of the wall. I tried to convince myself that it was silly: girls got upset all the time. But this was Clare; I had to worry. I was exhausted, but it took forever to fall back asleep.
"Well, I'm heading to bed," Helen said. It was only a little after eleven. My Dad stayed up a bit longer, and then left me with the TV to myself.
"School night," he reminded me, as he went upstairs. I nodded, though I wasn't planning to listen.
I stared at the screen, but nothing was really getting through. All day at school, I hadn't been able to concentrate. I tried to catch a glimpse of Clare to see if she was all right, but the one time I saw her, she still looked upset. After one class, I confronted Alli. I hadn't really expected her to tell me what was going on, but I was hoping she knew. Instead, I found out she was just as worried and just as in the dark.
Clare had shut herself in her room as soon as she got home. At Helen's request, she joined us for dinner. I tried to deflect any questions aimed her way, figuring she wouldn't want to share what was going on with her at the dinner table. All I'd earned were dirty looks.
I heard her footsteps on the stairs at 12:30. She must have thought everyone would be asleep.
"You're up," Clare said, when she saw me.
"Yeah," I said. I watched her, wondering if she would run away again. She didn't.
Clare walked over and sat with me on the couch. She was on the far other side, and she pulled her legs up. I'd never seen Clare sit so… improperly. At most, she'd put her feet up on the coffee table, but not this. It would have been funny in another situation. Or maybe I wouldn't have even noticed.
Clare glanced at me, so I looked away. I didn't want her to feel I was studying her. Even though I kind of was.
"I can't sleep," she said. "I… haven't been sleeping."
"Oh," I said, unsure of what to say. "Sorry."
We watched TV in silence for a while. Sometimes, Clare would rub her eyes, but otherwise, she kept it together. There was a part of me that worried I was keeping her from letting it out. Girls needed to do that sometimes. But I couldn't leave her alone to cry. Not Clare.
"I talked to Alli today," I said, finally. The look Clare gave me made me regret it. "We're worried about you."
"It's not your job to check up on me," Clare said. I thought she would get up then, but she didn't.
"It kind of is," I said.
"What, as my brother?" Clare gave another feeble laugh.
"Yeah," I said, half-heartedly.
"I'm fine, Jake," Clare said. "Put your brotherly worries aside, okay?" And she gave me a big smile that didn't reach her eyes. Afterwards, a whimper escaped. Forcing the smile had been too much for her. She turned away from me and tried to steady her breathing. I wanted to hold her, but not because of "brotherly" worries.
"Clare, I… I don't know what's going on, but I think you should talk to someone," I said. "Alli, your Mom, your Dad. Somebody." I reached out to her, but she moved away violently.
"Don't touch me!" Clare cried. I pulled my hand away, alarmed. She looked immediately regretful. "Jake, I'm sorry, I just…" Clare shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Something is really wrong," I said, gently. It was hard to stay stable, because I was starting to think I had an idea about what was wrong. "And it's not going to get better this way."
Clare looked at me with wet eyes for a minute. "You're… you're right," she said, looking down at her hands. "But I'm… just not ready."
I sighed. "Okay," I said. I wanted to be understanding, but I also wanted to run upstairs and wake up our parents. Make something happen. "Well, I'm, uh, here if you need me."
Clare smiled at me, and though it was a sad smile, it seemed real.
We stayed on the couch together, and I watched the hours slip away. Clare eased closer to me slowly. I wanted to move her way, too, but I didn't want to scare her off. By 4AM, she was almost right next to me. I wanted to pull her in, but I held back. Then, her head hit my shoulder. My heart jolted. But she had just fallen asleep.
The next day, Clare seemed a little better. A little more like herself. It might have been the sleep. I woke her only when I thought our parents would be getting up soon. She smiled and went upstairs to take a shower. Either way, I knew it was only a temporary relief. She would have to work this out eventually. I just hoped it wasn't what I thought.
That night, we stayed up for a while watching TV again after our parents went to bed. We didn't talk much, but Clare sat very close to me. I knew I shouldn't enjoy it; she certainly didn't want it for the same reason. But I kept thinking back to the times we were sneaking around. Kissing on the couch. I was kidding myself when I thought it could be casual. Even now, I wasn't over her. But she'd moved on. Not that it really mattered now. She needed a brother, so I'd be that for her.
At about 2AM, I could see Clare was fading. Her eyes blinked wearily. I waited, not mentioning anything. I was tired, but I'd stay up all night again, if I had to.
"I think I'll go up to bed," Clare said, not long after.
"Okay," I agreed. "Me, too."
I turned off the TV, and we walked up the stairs together. At her door, Clare turned and gave a tired smile. "Goodnight," she said.
"Goodnight," I said with a yawn.
I was so happy to get into bed. I fell asleep almost instantly, but I still felt half-awake. I was touching the wall that separated us. My fingers traced patterns. I put my ear to the wall, trying to make sure she wasn't crying. I couldn't hear anything, but I didn't move.
There was a knock. My eyes opened. I was lying in bed, not propped against the wall. But I had heard a knock. I knew for sure when I heard it again. So light that it wouldn't wake anyone else. I sat up and returned the knock. Then, I got out of bed, shutting my door behind me, and went over to her room. Clare opened it, and I watched her scared eyes as she let me in and closed the door behind us.
"Something… really bad happened, Jake," Clare breathed, staring at the floor with watery eyes.
"I know," I said. She looked up at me. "I mean, I could tell it was… bad."
Clare nodded. "I haven't been able to sleep," she said. "Every time I close my eyes… I can see it happening again. Feel it happening."
My stomach sloshed around; I thought I was going to be sick. "We-we have to tell your Mom, Clare," I said. "I could wake her up."
"No!" Clare said, grabbing my arm as I started to turn. "Please, Jake… I'll tell her. Just-just not tonight."
I frowned at her. "Then, what? What should I do?" I asked her. "Because I don't really know how to handle this."
"Will you just… stay with me tonight?" Clare asked, still holding my arm.
I swallowed. "What?"
"The only time I've been able to sleep was when you were right next to me," Clare said. "I felt… safe. Maybe if you were here, I could get through the night."
I stood there, not knowing what to say. Clare pulled me with her to the bed. My mind was spinning with the memory of being with her on that bed. What had almost happened. "I don't think I can do that, Clare," I said, honestly. Clare looked at me with her sad eyes. "Guys can't just sleep with girls without… there being more."
Clare let go of my arm. "Oh,' she said, quietly. "Right. I guess I wasn't thinking."
"I'll just be on the other side of the wall," I said, trying to convince her. "Not far at all."
Clare nodded, but I knew that hadn't been enough before. Why would it be now?
I took a deep breath. I tried to remember how I'd agreed to be her brother. She needed a protector. Someone to chase the monsters away. There was no reason why a brother couldn't stay with his sister. Though at this age, it still would be really weird.
But we were already weird. Things would always be weird with us. Why not mess with reason even further? And I was so tired.
"Okay," I sighed. "I'll, uh… try."
"Thank you," Clare said with so much relief in her voice.
Clare settled into her bed, and I slid in next to her, blood rushing through my veins. I sat propped against her pillows, trying not to breathe in the light floral scent. Trying to pretend I was getting into my own bed. Or better, just sitting in the middle of class. Anywhere but here. Clare eased against me. "I trust you, Jake," Clare said. "I know you wouldn't hurt me."
I knew I couldn't let her down. Logically, I knew now more than ever before was the wrong time to try something. But how could she ask me to do something so difficult?
Still, I stayed with her, watching her fall asleep. It was the hardest thing I'd ever had to do, being so close, without being able to touch her face and kiss her lips. I was aching to comfort her in all the ways that I wanted. In some ways, it was harder than when I had refused to be with her. But unlike then, I knew I'd be able to do the right thing all along. I wouldn't hurt Clare like that with what she'd probably been through.
I drifted in and out of sleep, always trying to keep aware of the time. I almost lost it when I heard one of our parents get up to use the bathroom, but I remembered that I had closed my door. They'd have no idea. But after that, I stayed awake the rest of the night, trying to imagine a world where everything was right. Where Clare and I could have stayed together. And of course, a world where she would never get hurt.
Alli came over first thing in the morning. She gave Clare a big hug, and Clare held on tight. They went upstairs to talk, and later, Clare told me she had called her sister. Darcy was on her way home, so they could tell their Mom about what happened together. Alli stayed over that night, and as far I knew, everyone got a good night's rest. My dreams were messy, frustrating, and full of Clare, but at least, I slept.
Clare's sister arrived home from university the next day. After a short talk - which from upstairs, I could only pick up a word or two - Clare went into therapy. And she was really pulling it all together. Sometimes, I did stay up late with her, after Darcy went back to school. But she never asked me to stay with her again. I knew I should be glad she was doing better, and I was, of course. But there was a part of me, which missed something about those few nights of insomnia. Those nights, when Clare had needed me, even if it wasn't in the way I wanted her.
I was only needed again two and a half weeks later. Clare was finally ready to tell Eli. They'd talked about some things, she'd said. But she was scared of how he'd react when he knew all the details. So, Clare wanted me nearby, to stop Eli if he "overreacted" and tried to rush off, fists flying. I didn't tell her that would empathize if he did; I thought about doing that every time I saw Clare having a rough moment. It was only because I'd been there when the lawyer came to visit that I hadn't. I knew it wouldn't really help.
Clare and Eli were talking in her room with the door closed. I sat on my bed with my door open, waiting. I made myself sick thinking about Eli being able to comfort her in the ways I wasn't allowed. I wondered if things would always be like this while I lived here. Maybe it would be better if I didn't. I thought about what it would be like if I did leave for a university in the fall. It would be easier for everyone, I figured, but the idea of being away from her now made me sick in a different way.
I heard Clare's door open, and in a minute, she came around the corner. "We're going out," she said.
"Did it go okay?" I asked.
"I think so," Clare said. She gave a small smile. "Thanks for being on standby, though."
"Sure," I said. "No problem."
I followed her out the door and downstairs to where Eli was now waiting. He leaned in slowly and asked if it was okay, then put an arm around her. My heart was beating in my ear. My thoughts flashed to all the moments when we'd been close and happy. Then, they were gone.
My phone rang, not two seconds after the front door closed. It was Katie. I answered.
"Hey!" she said. "I was thinking of going out. You free?"
"Yeah," I answered with a sigh. "I'm free."