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Things We Left Behind: Chapter 11


Shania Twain Is a Beautiful Badass

Lucian

Twenty-­three years ago

Here we go,” Simon Walton said as he set a Garfield coffee mug that said i wish this were lasagna at my elbow.

We were facing off in the breakfast nook in the Waltons’ kitchen, a room that was almost the size of the entire first floor of my house. Leaves of orange and rust whispered on the other side of the angular windows above the banquette.

On the freshly painted turquoise table between us sat a worn chessboard midbattle.

“Thanks,” I said, still frowning at the board. I liked that he didn’t question me or make fun of me for asking for coffee. Men drank coffee. I was learning to like it.

I closed my fingers around the knight’s head and moved it deeper into enemy territory.

“Remember, you can’t just go on the attack willy-­nilly,” Mr. Walton explained. “You need to have a plan. A strategy. You can’t just think about what you’re going to do. You have to predict what your opponent is going to do.”

With that advice, his bishop neatly destroyed my knight.

“Damn it,” I muttered, picking up the coffee.

Mr. Walton grinned. “No quitting. See it through.”

Annoyed, I sacrificed a pawn.

“And that’s checkmate,” Mr. Walton said, nudging his glasses up his nose.

I slouched against the yellow patterned cushion. “I don’t think I like this game.”

“I have a feeling with a little more practice you’ll find your stride. It’s just like what you do on the football field from inside the pocket.”

It was a November Sunday afternoon. Which meant no game, no practice, no escape from the hell I lived next door.

Dad was out fishing with friends. Mom was where she spent most of her free time when my father wasn’t around: alone in her bedroom. I’d spotted Mr. Walton in his backyard deadheading flowers and volunteered to help.

“How are the chess lessons going?” Karen Walton asked, sweeping into the room with two bags of groceries.

“Great,” Mr. Walton insisted.

“Terrible,” I said.

We both rose from the table and each relieved her of a bag. While Mr. Walton laid a loud kiss on his wife, I busied myself with delivering the bag to the huge central island. There were small messes and chaos here. A haphazard stack of cookbooks, a flour spill next to the porcelain container that no one had gotten around to cleaning up. The bowl of apples sat half on and half off a magazine open to an article about sending kids to college.

Messes weren’t tolerated in my house. Anything that might be a trigger had to be avoided at all costs.

“There’s more in the car,” Mrs. Walton announced, giving Mr. Walton an embarrassing pat on the ass. Affection was something else that didn’t exist at my place.

“We’ll get them,” Mr. Walton insisted. “Treat yourself to a cup of coffee while my protégé and I unload.”

“What would I do without you two? And I think I’ll have wine instead,” Mrs. Walton said, giving me an affectionate pat on the arm as she headed toward the large built-­in china cabinet that housed a menagerie of mismatched bar glasses.

I didn’t quite manage to hide the wince when her fingers accidentally came in contact with my latest bruise. The Waltons drank. There was wine at the dinner table, and I saw Mr. and Mrs. Walton sometimes enjoying cocktails on the front porch. But I never saw either of them drunk.

That was the difference between Mr. Walton and my father. Self-­control.

Maybe that was what he was trying to teach me on the chessboard.

“Football injury?” Mr. Walton asked, looking at my arm.

“Yeah,” I said, tugging the sleeve of my shirt down to cover the bruise. The lie stuck in my throat.

Mrs. Walton crooked her finger at me and pointed up. I hid my smile. I liked being needed even if it was just for my height. I found her favorite long-­stemmed wineglass with flowers etched on it on the top shelf and handed it to her. She wiggled it in her husband’s direction, asking a silent question. Mr. Walton gave her a geeky thumbs-­up, and I pulled a second glass off the shelf.

“Lucian, I don’t like you playing that game,” she lectured, taking the second glass and heading to the counter. She put the glasses down, rummaged through one of the bags, and produced a bottle of wine. “There are too many ways to get hurt. And yes, young bodies heal faster, but you don’t know what that kind of damage can add up to later in life.”

“The boy is starting quarterback in his senior year, love,” Mr. Walton pointed out. “He’s not quitting the team and taking up knitting.”

“Nobody said knitting,” she said. “What about softball? Sloane hardly ever gets hurt. Where is our daughter, by the way?”

I’d been wondering the same thing for the last two hours but had refused to ask.

“On a date with the Bluth boy,” Mr. Walton said with an exaggerated eyebrow wiggle.

I stiffened. This was news to me. We’d talked about it. Not at school because we never talked at school. It was some unspoken rule between the two of us. She probably thought I was an asshole. The popular quarterback who thought he was too good to be seen talking to the sophomore bookworm.

“I forget. Do we like him or not?” Mrs. Walton asked, inserting the corkscrew.

Jonah Bluth was a punk-­ass junior defensive tackle who’d made the mistake of running his mouth in the locker room about Sloane Walton’s tits that he was going to get his hands on. I’d waited until we’d gotten out on the practice field before I hit him hard enough to knock some sense into him. Unfortunately for him, that sense didn’t tell him to stay down, and Nash had been the one to pry us apart.

I’d told Sloane in no uncertain terms to dump Jonah’s ass. She’d demanded to know why. For some reason, she felt like she had the right to know everything about everything. It was infuriating and endearing at the same time.

I told her he was an asshole and that she deserved better. Both truths.

She said she’d think about it, which apparently meant she was going to do what she damn well pleased no matter what.

“I think we’re withholding judgment to see if our daughter likes him,” Mr. Walton said. Then he beckoned to me. “Come on, Lucian. I’ll tell you about the Scandinavian defense while we cart in the groceries.”

“I’m making your second favorite for dinner tonight, Lucian. Frozen ravioli with store-­bought sauce,” Mrs. Walton called after us.

I didn’t recognize the warm feeling in my chest, but I liked it.


The metallic tang of blood filled my mouth. My arms and shoulders sang from the half dozen bruises I’d have to hide. My jaw ached from his fist. And for once, the knuckles of my right hand were bruised and split.

The blow had surprised us both.

Worse.

He was getting worse.

And so was I.

“Your father didn’t mean it,” Mom said in her whisper of a voice. She always whispered. “He’s got a lot on his mind.”

We were sitting side by side on the worn linoleum of the kitchen floor in the middle of the mess like we were two pieces of trash waiting to be scooped up and disposed of.

“That’s no fucking excuse, Mom. Mr. Walton next door—­”

She flinched. That was what had started it this time when Dad came home stinking of booze.

It was always something. Dinner was cold. I’d parked my fourth-­hand car wrong. A tone of voice wasn’t respectful enough. Tonight, it had been the chess book Simon Walton had given me.

“You think you’re better than me?” Dad had growled. “You think that fucking pussy next door is better than me? You think you can read a fucking book and forget where you came from?”

There were nights that I prayed to a deity I didn’t fully believe in, begging the divine to have him arrested for drunk driving or something worse.

It was the only way we were going to survive.

Though part of me worried that it was already too late. I was filled with the kind of anger that festered deep down, that never found a release, that changed who you were as a person.

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to unfist my hands.

He had done this to me.

It wasn’t so much the pain. At least not anymore. It was the humiliation. His demands that Mom and I both cater to his every whim. His belief that he was the center of our universe. That our needs were secondary to his own.

I was big enough, strong enough that I could fight him if I had to. He realized that now. He realized it and hated me even more for holding back from doing just that.

I didn’t want to be him, and he knew it. So he was going to do his best to break me. And if I wasn’t there, he continued to break my mother.

Broken men broke women.

That refrain echoed in my head as I got to my feet, helped my mother to hers, and then slipped out into the backyard.

The autumn chill cooled my skin. Dead leaves crunched softly under my feet.

I wanted to run. To leave this place far behind and never look back. But without me, it would only be a matter of time before he killed her. Before he pushed her too hard or lost control and couldn’t stop swinging.

I was the only thing keeping her alive.

I didn’t know why the three of us continued to pretend that college was an option. That I’d actually take the football scholarship I’d worked so fucking hard for. We all knew what would happen if I left. Yet we never spoke about it. We never talked about the dirty secret we shared.

I spit out the blood and bitterness into the dark and started to work out the pain in my right shoulder with arm circles. He always knew just where to hurt me. Just enough to remind me he could but not enough for anyone else to take notice.

Until tonight, I reminded myself, flexing my jaw. There would be no hiding the bruise on my face.

“Psst!”

I stopped circling my arm and peered around the side of my house, beyond the dingy beige siding, past the patches of weeds to the fence that divided good from bad in my life.

And there she was in the window beyond the cherry tree. The good.

“What are you doing up? It’s late,” I scolded in a whisper.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Sloane called back.

I wouldn’t be able to now either. He wasn’t coming back. Not tonight. He’d go to a buddy’s house and drink until he passed out. I, on the other hand, would lie there awake, staring at the ceiling, wishing he’d never come back. That he’d drive that truck off a bridge and put us all out of our misery.

I looked back at my house. The lights in Mom’s bedroom were on. She’d be curling up in that tight ball like she always did after. She used to curl up around me. When times weren’t quite as bad. When he wasn’t quite as vicious. But somewhere along the way, she’d started curling in on herself, and I became the protector.

I should stay. I shouldn’t taint Sloane’s life with the ugliness of my own.

“I got a new CD. Wanna listen?” she hissed in the dark.

“Fuck it,” I murmured to myself and entered her yard.

The gnarled bark of the cherry tree abraded my hands as I climbed to her.

“Hi,” Sloane said, pretty and perky in a pair of pajama pants and a David Bowie tank top when I climbed through her window.

“Hi,” I said, carefully stepping over the books littering her window seat.

She had a pillow crease on her cheek under her glasses. Her hair was piled on top of her head in a knot so messy it was clear she’d been sleeping at some point.

She was…cute. Adorable even. I was drawn to her, but in a way that wasn’t what I was used to.

“What woke you up?” I asked uneasily.

Her gaze darted to the window and then back again. She raised her chin. “I don’t know.”

She was a good liar, but I could still tell. “Did you hear something?” I pressed.

“You’re bleeding,” she said, ignoring my question and jumping into action.

My fingers found the corner of my mouth and came away red. “Shit.”

She grabbed a box of tissues and yanked several free. “Here. Sit.”

“No, it’s fine. I should go,” I said, starting for the window. I should have known better than to bring this here. Just because I was feeling sorry for myself didn’t give me the right to bleed all over her room.

“Hey. You can’t go. You still haven’t apologized for the rock last spring.”

“Next time,” I said briskly. It was our refrain. Our promise that I’d be back. A promise I needed to give serious thought to breaking.

I got one foot up on the window seat when she grabbed me by the back of my sweatpants. “Seriously, Sloane?”

“Let me look at your mouth. I mean the blood on your mouth,” she insisted.

She clung to me like one of those fucking burrs you got stuck to your socks after a walk in the woods.

“Fine,” I muttered. I sat on the cushion between a John Grisham and an Octavia Butler.

“Stay,” Sloane ordered.

“You’re bossy for a pixie,” I complained.

She snorted as she collected the clump of tissues and a glass of water from her nightstand. Her bottle-­green eyes were solemn as she approached me. And I knew then that she knew.

She knew and she felt sorry for me. My hands closed into fists again.

“So are you ready for your chem test tomorrow?” she asked.

She knew my secret, knew I didn’t want to talk about it, so she was just going to clean me up and pretend everything was normal. I didn’t deserve her.

“Sorry for never…you know…” I gestured helplessly.

“Acknowledging me at school?” Sloane guessed, filling in the blank for me. She had an uncanny knack for knowing what I wanted to say even when I didn’t have the words to say it.

“Yeah.”

She shrugged those dainty shoulders and flashed me a smirk. “Eh. It’s fine. It would ruin my street cred if the captain of the football team started paying attention to me.”

“Your street cred?” I scoffed.

She dunked the tissues into the water and began to gently dab at the corner of my mouth. It felt…nice to have someone care.

“People would start expecting me to try out for the cheerleading squad and go to the bonfires at Third Base. It would cut into my reading time. Plus, I’d have to give up my secret crush on Philip.”

“Stage Crew Phil is your secret crush?” I teased.

Stage Crew Phil’s claims to fame were his perfect grades in calculus and the headset he got to wear backstage during school productions because he was in charge of the curtain. He gave zero shits about what anyone thought of him and went to school in the same jeans and black T-­shirt outfit every single day. Except for Picture Day when he wore a bow tie over the T-­shirt.

“I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for a guy with power. Every time I think of him hissing ‘curtain up,’ I get weak in the knees.”

I was smiling in spite of…everything. That was the effect she had on me. She was good. Everything about her seemed to sparkle. Good people got good things.

Then I remembered Jonah.

“Your dad said you were on a date tonight.” It sounded accusatory, but I couldn’t help it.

“Relax. I went out with Jonah so I could dump him in person.”

I straightened. “You broke up?”

“Mm-­hmm,” she said, her gaze glued to my mouth. “He was kind of an ass. You were right.”

“Say that part again,” I insisted.

Her lips quirked as she worked. “No.”

“Come on,” I wheedled.

“No. And shut up. But seriously,” she continued, pressing the wet wad of tissues to the corner of my mouth, “I understand.”

“You understand what?”

“You can’t be seen being friendly to a four-­eyed sophomore nerd. It would tear a hole in the space-­time continuum of high school society.”

She didn’t know the real reason why I didn’t want anyone to know about us. If my father had an inkling that something mattered to me, he destroyed it or ruined it in whatever way he could. The only thing he “allowed” me to have was football because it meant something to him to have a son who excelled on the field.

But if he ever had a hint that Sloane meant something to me, that I valued her, he would inflict damage. And if he did, if he managed to hurt her in some way, I didn’t think I could live with that…or let him live.

“Nerd,” I said lightly.

“Does it hurt?” she asked me, changing the subject again. Her voice was husky and serious now.

“It’s fine,” I lied.

“Lucian—­”

“Don’t,” I said.

“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“Yes, I do. And it’s none of your business.”

“But—­”

“Not everyone has the family you do. Okay?” She had no idea what I dealt with on a daily basis. Not when she’d been raised by Simon and Karen Walton.

“But why can’t we go to the cops?” she pressed.

The idea of picking up the phone and calling the cops on my father was laughable.

Police Chief Wylie Ogden was one of Dad’s best friends. I was ten years old when Wylie had pulled my father over for speeding and swerving between the lines. He was drunk. He’d handed me his open beer can when he pulled over onto the shoulder.

The nerves in my belly had just started to unclench. The police would help. We watched videos about this in school. Don’t drink and drive. But my dad did.

I’d thought the police would stop my dad from making this mistake, from scaring me, from hurting someone.

“Someone started early today,” Wylie had cackled when he walked up to my father’s window.

The chief had let him off without even a warning. They’d shot the shit about a fishing boat and made plans to meet up at the bar later that evening. And then Wylie had waved my father back onto the road as if bestowing some kind of special privilege on him.

“I just can’t,” I said tightly.

“Yes, we can,” she insisted.

She kept saying “we.” As if she was in this too when that was the last thing I wanted. If she got too close… If she got hurt…I wouldn’t be able to hold back. I wouldn’t be able to stick to defense. I would end him, and in doing so, I would become him.

“If he’s hurting you, Lucian—­” Sloane’s voice broke, and so did a piece of my heart.

“Stop,” I whispered, gathering her into my arms as I stood.

She wrapped her arms around my waist and held on tight. Her face pressed against my chest. I hated how good this physical affection from her felt.

It wasn’t the way I felt about Brandy Kleinbauer when I’d lost my virginity to her at barely sixteen. Or the hormonal longing I’d felt for Cindy Crawford all through junior high. And it wasn’t what I felt for Addie, my on-­again, off-­again weekend hookup.

This was…more complicated. I liked Sloane. I wanted to keep her safe. And every time we touched, no matter how innocently, part of me wished for more. But that wasn’t an option. I was broken and she was beautiful.

I didn’t know what we were to each other beyond the fact that she was important to me. More important than anyone.

“What CD did you get?” I asked.

She pulled back from our embrace, and I was both relieved and regretful. Her glasses were askew. Her hair was even more of a wreck. I felt something warm and tender slide through my chest. Like I was absorbing her goodness. But it wasn’t mine to take.

“Shania Twain.”

I smirked. “You’re kidding right?”

“What’s the matter? Aren’t you man enough to listen to girl country?” She bounced over to her bed and picked up her headphones with a challenge in her eyes. “Shania Twain is a beautiful badass. Wanna listen?”

She looked so sweet and hopeful, her hair lopsided, eyes wide. I wanted nothing more than to lie next to her in that soft bed, in this nice room, in this big house, and be part of it all. And that was exactly why I couldn’t.

I brought darkness with me. My bruises were contagious.

“I should get back and…” And what? What was left for me at home?

Sloane cocked her head. “Please?”

“It’s not a good idea, Pix. What if your parents come in? I shouldn’t be here.” I shouldn’t be anywhere near her.

“They’re asleep on the other side of the house. And honestly, if you leave right now, I’m just going to spend the whole night worrying about you. I won’t be able to sleep. And I’ll be so tired tomorrow that I’ll fail my trig test. Come on, big guy. Do you really want that on your conscience?”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“Three songs,” Sloane bargained, hopping onto her bed and patting the mattress next to her.

I sighed. She sensed victory and grinned. “One song,” I countered.

“Two,” she insisted.

It was selfish and absolutely stupid, I thought, as I toed off my shoes. If Sloane’s dad were to come in here and find me in his daughter’s bed, he’d never forgive me. Even if I tried to explain. He knew how special she was, and he could sense how damaged I was. That was why they were so nice. Because they felt sorry for me.

“It’s Come on Over, not advanced calculus,” Sloane teased.

I climbed onto the bed next to her and resolutely stayed above the duvet cover. But I did let her pile her insane pillow collection around us. “What are you doing?” I asked as she tucked a pillow under my arm.

“I’m building a nest. This is how I sleep,” she explained, fluffing the two behind me.

“You sleep with forty-­two pillows every night?”

“It’s six, smarty-­pants. And don’t judge me until you’ve tried it.”

I had one pillow and a mattress on the floor after Dad had splintered my bed frame throwing me on it last summer. I relaxed against the mound of pillows and tried not to think about how good it felt being surrounded by softness.

Sloane cuddled up against my side. It was just the two of us supported by a soft U of pillows.

“Is he like this all the time?” she asked softly.

I looked down at my hands in my lap. They were balled into fists again. “Only when he drinks. He just drinks more often now. He still acts normal some of the time.” And it was that act, that pretense that I hated more. I preferred the monster to the man pretending to care by showing up to football games or taking us out to dinner.

“I hate him.” Her voice quivered. “I really hate him.”

I slid my arm around her shoulders and cautiously drew her closer. It felt so good that I knew it was wrong. “I don’t want you thinking about him.”

“Why can’t we tell the cops?” she asked.

I shook my head. “It’s complicated, okay? Just trust me.”

“Promise me you’ll take care of yourself, Lucian? Like if he gets too out of control, you won’t let him…you know.”

Kill me. Kill my mother.

I would kill him first. Even if it sealed my fate as a monster. Like father, like son, I thought. “I promise if you promise me you won’t call the cops. Ever. No matter what.”

She took a deep breath and blew it out.

“Pixie,” I prompted. “You have to trust me. Cops would just make it worse.”

Her silence lasted too long, and I squeezed her shoulder.

“Ugh. Fine. But I’m not happy about it.”

“Promise me,” I insisted. She was the daughter of a lawyer. I knew better than to accept “Ugh. Fine,” as an answer.

“I promise,” she said miserably.

Some of the tension drained out of me with her assurance.

Sloane looked up at me with those forest-­green eyes. “You’re not going to college, are you? You can’t leave her alone with him.”

I looked away. “No. I can’t.”

She sat up next to me, her small body tight with indignation at the injustice of it. “That sucks. You have to sacrifice your entire future because your dad is a monster and your mom won’t leave? It’s not fair.”

“Life’s not fair, Pix.”

“What if I looked out for her?” she offered hopefully.

“No.” The word came out so loud it seemed to echo around the room.

We both froze and listened for the telltale sounds of waking parents.

I grasped her by both shoulders and made her look me in the eye. “You’re not to ever get involved. Do you hear me? You don’t ever go over there. You don’t speak to them. You don’t ever draw any attention to yourself. And you don’t ever stand between him and someone else when he’s been drinking. Okay?”

She was wide-­eyed and scared. But I needed her to be. I needed to ensure she never went near my father.

“Okay. Geez. Chill out. It was only a suggestion,” she said, looking like I’d just asked her to set her favorite book on fire.

I heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry for scaring you.”

“You didn’t scare me. You annoyed me with your intensity.”

“Three songs,” I conceded.

She brightened and crawled over me to reach for the earbuds on her nightstand. This time when I fisted my hands in the bedspread, it had nothing to do with fear or anger. I was having…feelings. Normal teenage guy feelings. But I wasn’t allowed to have those with Sloane. Mr. Walton trusted me. And I needed that trust. Sometimes the Waltons felt like the only anchor I had.

She crawled back across me and handed me an earbud before settling into my side again.

“Does Addie know that we do this?” she asked.

“What?”

“Addie. Your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.” Not exactly. She was a girl I’d spent time with in the past few weeks. Some of that time was spent partially naked. But that was because I was seventeen and she was trying to make her ex-­boyfriend jealous. It wasn’t like I talked on the phone with her or had dinner with her parents…or climbed a tree and crawled through her window at night to hang out.

“Does your not girlfriend know about any of this?” she pressed.

“No. And we’re not seeing each other anymore.” She’d gotten a little too demanding. Wanting to make plans, wanting to meet my parents. I couldn’t give her any of that. And I didn’t want to either after I’d overheard her telling one of her friends that the busty Sloane Walton was definitely a slut.

“Oh?” she said innocently.

“You don’t look broken up about it,” I observed.

She shrugged. “She just wasn’t very nice. You could do better. But if you did do better and you were with someone nice, I guess we wouldn’t get to hang out like this. And I kind of like our secret little friendship or…whatever.”

Friendship didn’t describe what I felt for her. I was friends with Knox and Nash Morgan. But I sure as hell wouldn’t curl up with them in a pillow nest to listen to music. Hell, I wouldn’t do that with Addie either. Maybe Cindy Crawford.

“I like us too,” I told her.

I caught a glimpse of the bright smile she couldn’t quite hide as she ducked her head and reached for the CD player.

I slid my arm around her shoulder and guided her head to rest on my chest. Between the pillows, Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On,” and the soft, warm heat of Sloane pressed up against me, I felt almost happy. I could nearly pretend that this was my life. Here in this house. With the good, sweet girl in my arms.

The song was over too quickly, changing to a country anthem. Something about black eyes and blue tears. She was never going back. It must have been the exhaustion that painted the story in my head. Walking away. Moving on. Growing up.

For a second, I wanted it so badly that I didn’t realize how tight I was clinging to Sloane until my fingers started to ache.

Wincing, I relaxed my grip on her. She tilted her head to look up at me. “It’s okay. You can hang on to me. I won’t break.”

I pushed her face back down and resumed my hold on her, keeping it gentle this time.

The track changed again. The third song was the ballad “I Won’t Leave You Lonely,” and despite my best efforts, the words got in my head and tattooed themselves on my soul. I’d never be able to hear this song and not think about Sloane and how safe she made me feel. I wanted to hear it again, but I wasn’t about to ask her to replay it. Maybe I’d buy the album myself…and hide it in my car.

When the final chords of the song played in my ear, Sloane slid a slim arm over my stomach and clung to me. I’d fulfilled my promise of three songs. But there was nothing for me at home. And there was everything for me here.

She didn’t say anything when the next song began. Neither did I.


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