A/N Thank you so much to all of you who read/reviewed The One That Never Was. I always appreciate your feedback so much. Angst still included :)
Life is so fucking unfair.
I was taught that you should treat people well and try to be a good person. But what's the point in that?
Bad stuff happens to people all the time, no matter what kind of person they are. My brother was a great guy. He always tried his best and never did a bad thing that I can remember. That didn't make any difference when a stray bullet ended his life too soon and shattered my family.
If life was fair, Clay would still be alive today, but as I learned the year before he left us, it's anything but.
Nothing can really compare to the grief we all dealt with when Clay was killed. But what made that trying time even worse, was that I was still dealing with having my heart broken by the first girl I ever fell in love with.
If I'm being honest, she's been the only girl I've ever loved.
I thought we had something special. I thought she loved me, too. I thought she was going to be my first. I thought love conquered everything. Those were the thoughts of a naïve sixteen year old that hadn't discovered yet what a cruel world we live in.
I never knew what I did to make Ashley leave. I have spent so many hours poring over the last conversation we had to find some clue as to why she acted the way she did. But I couldn't for the life of me come up with a reason for her actions. It's not like she just stopped talking to me or told me she wasn't interested anymore. Maybe then I could have dealt with things.
No, she actually ran away without so much as a thought to my feelings or what it would do to me. Ashley made me believe that she felt what I felt. She made me believe that we were going to be a couple. She made me believe that we had something special. And then she just left without a word or an explanation for why she changed her mind.
Those first few days after Ashley took off I went from worried to angry, back to worried and then more anger. It was awful—not a time I try to remember if I can help it. There was family drama I was also dealing with but mostly it was me trying to make sense of something that I couldn't comprehend.
Then I found out that she was involved in a really bad car accident. It was so bad that her father died and so did the driver of the car that hit them. When I heard that news nothing mattered expect getting to her. I didn't care about how mad and betrayed I felt. I just wanted to be there for the girl that I loved. I knew Ashley wasn't going to cope well with what was an awful situation.
Everything was made worse by the fact that I wasn't out to my parents at the time, so I was dealing with it all by myself. I had never felt more alone or more scared.
I tried to see Ashley at the hospital, but I wasn't allowed in. I don't know why I thought she'd see me when she clearly didn't want anything to do with me. I was delusional to believe the car accident had changed anything. Yet again, my heart was broken.
It was such a difficult time to get through. People looked to me for answers on how Ashley was doing; nobody knew that she had decided to leave before the accident. Going to school was awful and it felt like I was the topic of everyone's gossip. I shouldn't have been surprised that people thought there was something between Ashley and me. We had certainly acted that way throughout that year, even if we thought we were being sneaky about it.
Dealing with getting my heart broken forced me out of the closet. I got nothing but support from my father, as expected, but my mother was another story. There's no use rehashing what she put me through, but needless to say, she wasn't as accepting.
I know people questioned why it has taken me so long to get over a relationship that never really started. Ashley and I were never a couple, we never dated, and we never even kissed. But they don't understand how much she made me feel.
How much she still makes me feel.
I thought I was finally over her. I was ready for a fresh start. That's part of the reason why I chose to go to grad school at NYU. I'd be in a new city, where nobody knew me and I could break free from what's weighed me down the last few years.
Boy, was I wrong about that.
I was in New York two days before I ran right into the past I was trying to get away from.
What kind of sick joke is that?
And it's not just seeing Ashley again that has thrown my whole world upside down.
On a lot of nights, when I would be wallowing in self pity, the thought that maybe Ashley regretted her decision and was just as miserable as me really helped me deal with things. I was such an idiot for thinking that.
Not only did she seem happy but, to make things even more horrible, I heard her say "love you" to whoever that girl in the bookstore was.
She was in love with someone else.
I was so stupid to hang onto the memory of her all those years. Who pines after someone for so long?
Clearly I was the only one still stuck in the past.
I won't lie. When I first saw Ashley, after the shock wore off, my heart was nearly bursting with excitement. A rush of emotion hit me: I couldn't believe after all this time we were in the same room together. It was incredible.
She was even more stunning than I remembered. Ashley had always been ridiculously beautiful, and she'd only gotten better with age. Every horrible moment that she'd put me through didn't matter right then. That's something Ashley used to do to me a lot. She would make me forget how awful she could be just by taking my breath away.
I had to get as far away from her as possible and as quickly as possible. So I bolted from the bookstore where I found her before any words could be said by either of us.
Ashley followed me, and while I secretly was happy about that, I couldn't give her the chance to get close to me again.
My heart could not survive that.
I forced all of my pent up resentment and anger to the surface before I could get any of my hopes raised. There was no happy reconciliation or reunion, just heated words from me. I had to make sure Ashley was going to stay away from me.
Once I was done saying my peace, I stormed off not knowing where I was headed. I just knew I had to get away.
I found a small park to hide in. I'm sure my parents and brother were worried about me, but I needed a chance to process everything and calm myself down.
"Of all the bookstores in all the word, you had to walk into hers."
I smiled even though Glen's comment caused a pang in my chest. I remembered every second of the first time I watched Casablanca. It's pretty hard to forget when you were cuddled in bed with the girl that made your stomach flutter the whole time.
I'm not sure how my brother found me, but I was happy not to be alone anymore. My mind kept running through all my memories of Ashley, which wasn't doing me any good. I had already wasted so many hours on her.
"Where're mom and dad?" I asked, avoiding the obvious topic of discussion I'm sure my brother wanted to talk about.
Glen stared at me with a look of concern. "I don't know. I left them behind to come and find you."
"Well, we should probably go meet up with them," I said as I got up from the bench I had been sitting on. "We still have a lot to get done before your flight tomorrow."
"Spence…" Glen's voice trailed off.
"I'm fine," I told him before he could figure out the right words to say. I was lying and we both knew it, but I couldn't talk about how I felt right then.
I didn't even know what I felt.
Glen wrapped his arm around my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Whatever you want." I was so thankful that he wasn't going to push me to face what I clearly was not ready to face. "Let's get these errands done so we can finish setting up your place."
"Thanks," I replied and we both knew I didn't just mean for the manual labour he offered.
"I think that's the last of the boxes," my mom announced happily as she entered what was supposed to pass for my kitchen
It's not easy moving across the country. I'm lucky that my parents and brother came to New York with me so I wasn't alone my first few nights in a strange city. It was kind of fun having all of us cramped into such a small space.
I found myself alone with my mother, as my brother and dad went out to get us food. My guess is they also wanted a break from her taskmaster like behaviour.
The day had gone by with me in a daze for most of it. I couldn't get Ashley out of my head no matter what I tried to distract myself with
Two thoughts refused to leave my head: she's happy and she's happy with someone else.
It hurt so fucking much.
Glen must have said something to my parents because neither of them brought up what happened. It was a big relief for me.
I was in the middle of drying dishes, but my mom had other ideas, as she literally dragged me over to my new couch. I guess I had jinxed myself because from the expression on her face, I knew my day of avoiding the topic of a certain brunette was about over.
I'm stubborn, so I didn't go quietly into the good night. "I'm busy, you know."
My mom tucked my hair behind my ear like she always used to do when I was a child. It was both comforting and unsettling for her to be doing it right then. "I think this has gone on long enough."
"What's gone on long enough?" I asked trying my hardest to play dumb. "You're the one who wanted to move me out here. I told you it was going to be a lot of hard work."
My mom shook her head and let out a sigh. "You know that's not what I meant." She covered my hand with hers while I kept my facial expression neutral. "Nothing good ever came out of ignoring things, Spence, and that's what you're doing now." I didn't even get the chance to respond because she kept on talking. "I think it's time we discussed what happened with you and Ash-"
"Don't say her name!" I ordered, my tone ice cold. "There's nothing to discuss."
I tried to get up, but my mom was having none of it. "I know it must have been a shock to see her."
"That's an understatement," I muttered to myself, though she heard me.
"Spence…" My mom's tone was full of concern. All it made me want to do is run as far away from the conversation as I could get. "I'm not trying to upset you-"
"Then stop talking about her." I refused to say her name. "Besides, it's not like you ever liked her to begin with."
I knew that comment was a low blow.
My mom and I had long ago worked out our issues and she completely accepted me for who I was. But having my past forced upon me that day had opened up an old wound that had never healed. And with that, came up old feelings of hurt and anger that I experienced with my mom too. She had rejected me and that pain was also back, even though she didn't deserve me lashing out at her.
I didn't care. I just needed to stop talking about Ashley and I hoped that comment would do the trick.
"When you ran out of the store, I didn't blame you for reacting like that," my mom said as she ignored my remark and my desire to avoid what happened. I saw the hurt in her eyes from my comment but she didn't acknowledge that with me. "I know what you must have thought you saw, but you need to hear me out."
"Fine!" I huffed like a petulant child. It was not a good moment for me, but I didn't care. "You can talk, but I don't have to listen."
I heard my mom sigh and I could tell she was worried about me. "After you left, the girl that Ashley had been talking to came looking for Ashley, and your dad and I had a chance to talk to her."
I stared at my mom with a look of disbelief. She wants to talk about her.
The her that Ashley loves and the her that I want to know absolutely nothing about.
"Let me finish." My mom could clearly see how angry I was with her. "She's Ashley's sister."
"Ashley doesn't have a sister!" I exclaimed.
"She does." My mom was trying to remain calm in the face of me becoming unhinged. "She only found out about Kyla after her dad died."
I wanted to laugh even though there was nothing funny about the situation.
I felt like I was trapped in some kind of melodramatic soap opera filled with long lost sisters and improbable chance encounters.
My mom continued to tell me the story about what happened to Ashley after the car accident and why she had left the country so soon afterwards.
But hearing what she had to say didn't make me any less angry.
So that girl wasn't Ashley's girlfriend. So what?
I had to find out about all those things that happened after her dad died from my mom and not Ashley. And why was that? Because she decided long ago that I'm not someone she wanted in her life.
She made that decision.
Nothing that my mom said to me made any difference. Why should it? Ashley hurt me in such a deep and profound way. I wasn't ready to forgive her.
I would never be ready.
I listened to what my mom had to tell me, but I remained firm in my decision to move on. Maybe if I had found out about everything back then it would have made me want to give her another chance.
Five years later, there are no second chances.
There just aren't.
Two weeks after my family left I was doing everything in my power not to obsess about Ashley. Despite my decision to move on and forget that we had ever seen each other again, she was all I could think about.
I replayed our very short conversation repeatedly in my head. I alternated between anger at Ashley for distracting me from my new life and a longing for what we had started years before.
I would often imagine what a reunion with Ashley would be like. The scenarios would play out in two different ways: one, where I got to scream and yell at her for all the pain she caused me; and two, where we would reunite and try and pick up where we left off before she decided that she didn't want me.
I rarely allowed myself to picture that second scenario because it wasn't rooted in any kind of reality. And it hurt to think about.
It hurt more than I could possibly ever describe.
I knew that I was making the correct and rational decision.
So it was hard to explain, even to myself, why for the last three days, I found myself standing by the bookstore where I first saw Ashley, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. The first time it happened I allowed myself to be deluded into thinking it was just a coincidence where I decided to go shopping. By the third time, even I couldn't deny what I was doing.
After a week I wondered if there was something wrong with me.
I knew when she would show up and I made sure I was standing where Ashley couldn't see me. Each time I caught a glimpse of her my heart would speed up and my palms would get sweaty.
I was being ridiculous, bordering on stalkerish.
I felt such a need to see her that I couldn't stop what I was doing. There was a force was driving me to Ashley and I couldn't fight that force no matter how hard I tried.
I was supposed to be exploring the city and getting ready for school to start in a few weeks, but all I could focus on was the girl who broke my heart.
There definitely had to be something wrong with me—wrong with what I was doing. I was a woman possessed.
I debated a lot about whether I should actually approach Ashley and talk to her. My head was telling me one thing, and my heart, even though she shattered it, was telling me something else completely. I was scared. I was still angry. I was all over the place.
I was so fixated on staring at that bookstore that I didn't hear anyone come up behind me.
I let out a yelp and whirled around. Standing there was a young brunette woman that I did not know.
"I didn't mean to scare you," she said, smiling pleasantly at me. There was something oddly familiar about her. "I should introduce myself properly. I'm Kyla," she paused a few seconds, "Ashley's sister."
I had no idea how to react. I was caught completely off guard and just stared at her without saying a word.
Clearly I was busted and she would likely tell Ashley about what I had been doing.
"It's nice to finally meet someone I've heard so much about," Kyla continued, either unaware of me becoming mute or not caring. "I just wanted to let you know that I have to do a few things and won't be back at the bookstore for a few hours."
I couldn't figure out what she was getting at.
My ability to process anything was gone.
"It's not that busy of a store so, you know, Ashley will probably be alone for most of that time," she finished.
Still gob smacked, I think I nodded, but I remained silent.
"Nice to meet you, Spencer. Good luck," she said, leaving me with a big decision to make.
I assumed at that point that Ashley didn't know what Kyla had done. My gut told me that her sister didn't want to say anything to her if I decided not to go inside. My best guess was that Ashley thought I was never going to contact her again, so if I walked away nothing would change in her life.
But something would change in mine.
If I was truly going to move past what happened, I had to confront what I wanted to avoid.
Each step towards Ashley took effort as my heart and brain continued to fight with each other.
Even though I was scared, I pushed open the door of the bookstore before I could change my mind.
"Be with you in a second," Ashley called out from somewhere when she heard the bell ding to announce my arrival.
Her voice caused my insides to quiver.
I tentatively looked around. My breathing increased so rapidly I was on the brink of hyperventilating. Ten minutes earlier I was just staring at a storefront window and now I was on the brink of something big.
I wasn't ready.
I had been too impulsive.
I should have taken my time and weighed the pros and cons of actually seeing and talking to Ashley again. What was I thinking?
It was too much for me.
I wanted to run but my legs felt like they were glued to the floor.
My stomach was on fire.
I didn't even know what I wanted from this conversation. Did I want closure or a second chance?
Did Ashley even want a second chance with me?
Did she even deserve one?
"Sorry about that, I was just putting-" Ashley stopped mid-sentence when she saw me standing in the doorway. She had a book in her hand and it dropped to the floor.
Neither of us reacted to that however.
We were transfixed on each other.
I couldn't look away from her eyes. They were a mixture of so many emotions. But most of all, they were warm and inviting.
I remembered getting lost in those eyes: how Ashley and I would often lock gazes when we were trying to be coy with each other about our feelings; how I felt like she was the first person who really saw me for who I was; how those eyes gave me tingles.
They still did.
I always found it so hard to stay mad at Ashley. It was easy to get mad at her, but when she'd look at me with those eyes, it was near impossible not to forgive her on the spot—even when she did something I had a right to be upset about.
And that's exactly how I felt right then.
All the bad stuff she'd put me through started to melt away as we continued gazing at one another. It was a familiar yet utterly terrifying feeling.
I needed to remember what Ashley had done. Doing that gave me safety and would allow my heart to stay protected. I was starting to get my expectations up and that never led to good things.
Ashley had let me down and hurt me too many times; I couldn't gloss over those facts.
"Spencer!" Ashley exclaimed in surprise, breaking the silence that had been hanging over us. "What are you doing here?"
That was a good question. And it was a question I didn't know the answer to.
"I, uh, I wanted…" I couldn't finish my thought because my emotions were starting to get the best of me.
Why did Ashley have to screw up back then?
Why did everything have to be so hard now?
"Why did you leave?" I blurted out before I could stop myself. I had kept my Ashley-related feelings under lock and key for so long that they now were on the verge of spilling out without any kind of filter.
She looked at me in confusion. "You told me to."
It took me a second to understand what she meant. I shook my head, "Not the other day." I clarified, my anger starting to win out. "You invited me over to your place. You made me believe that you wanted me just as much as I wanted you. You have no idea what it felt like when I turned up and you weren't there."
"I don't know what to say," Ashley replied, her eyes had started to well up. "There's nothing I can say to make up for what I did."
"I'm not looking for an apology, Ashley," I told her tersely. "Because you're right, you can't say sorry and everything will suddenly be OK. That's not possible."
She winced at my words, but I didn't care.
The sadder she looked, the more my heart hardened. It was the only way I knew to protect myself.
"I want to know why you did it." I almost choked on my next words. "Why did you make me believe in us? Why did you lie to me?"
Ashley rocked back and forth on her feet. "I didn't lie. I got scared."
I threw my hands up in frustration and disbelief. "You got scared? Of what? Me?" I was furious. "You have no concept of what you put me through, do you?" I didn't wait for a response. "I waited like a fool for you that night. I showed up dreaming of what it would be like to finally admit my feelings to you. But because you couldn't handle things, you ran away!"
"It wasn't like that," Ashley said earnestly, but I wasn't really listening.
This wasn't about her anymore.
It was about me, unloading years of feelings that needed to get out.
"You're so selfish." I was holding nothing back. "You didn't even have the guts to tell me that you changed your mind. And then I didn't even know if you were dead or alive. I was out of my mind with worry that something happened to you and that's why you weren't there that night."
I had never been so scared like I was then.
It was torture.
Then I heard some gossip report about Ashley being spotted at one of her dad's shows. And I knew right then that she'd duped me into believing she cared about me.
Nobody who cares about someone treats them that way.
"You just left." I was choking back tears myself, but I wasn't about to stop talking. I needed to get this all out. "Outside of everything else, I lost my best friend when you took off."
Tears started to trickle down Ashley's face.
I had to ignore them in order to continue.
"When I came out to my mom and she shunned me, I couldn't call you and have you help me through that." My hands started to tremble as I fought to stay somewhat composed. "When Madison and her friends threw their awful comments at me, you weren't there to tell me to ignore them." I know at the end of the day getting through that made me a stronger person, but when it was happening I needed Ashley and she wasn't there. "When Clay was shot and killed at prom, I wished more than anything that I had you there to help me."
Ashley gasped and her crying intensified.
"I've spent all this time trying to figure out what I could have said or done differently to stop you from leaving." I hugged my arms to my chest to try and maintain control. "I thought maybe I pushed too hard and maybe I should have given you more time. I blamed myself a lot."
"It wasn't you," Ashley croaked out, but her words brought me no comfort.
"Right, you were scared," I scoffed.
I had been stupid to think that talking to Ashley was a good idea.
I should have just let things be.
"Goodbye, Ashley," I said, my tone firm and my decision made.
There was nothing left for me to say. I had gotten out a lot of what I'd been holding even if I didn't feel any better for having done that. Maybe I would down the line, but in that moment, I felt awful.
She didn't respond. I wasn't surprised.
I turned around and walked out the door without looking back. A part of me wanted to, but another part of me knew it would do me no good to see those eyes of hers again.
It was only after I was down the street when the tears started to come. Even though it hurt, I had done the right thing.
I had to face facts.
Ashley was always going to be the one that got away.
No matter how hard that was to accept.