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You're to Blame by Lindsey Iler (1)

Charlotte

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The heart monitor sings the usual tune. Feelings of life and hope are swiftly chased away by a real bitch named Bleakness.

“Dammit, Jacob Matthews, it’s been two weeks.” His hand is warm, which is such a contradiction to how lifeless he is. “No one knows what happened. You need to wake up, so you can tell us.”

When the one in an accident isn’t awake to share the tale, the rest of us are left to link together the tiny pieces of the puzzle.

Being alone with Jacob’s still body is my new normal. My new reality.

“It’s getting harder to leave,” I whisper my fears.

Since receiving the terrifying news, one of Jacob’s family or I have spent every minute in this hospital room. He’s never had a moment alone. If the doctors are right and he can hear us, his skin is crawling from all the attention. He’s not the kind to be fussed over. When he was in fourth grade and had his tonsils out, he crawled out his bedroom window and came to my house. He couldn’t handle his mother asking if he was feeling okay and if he needed anything.

There are only so many popsicles a kid can eat, Char. The memory makes me laugh.

The only detail we know is the police found his car around the S-curve right outside campus. According to the tread marks on the gravel, speed was a factor in his wreck. No surprise to me. He’d squealed his tires like a bat out of hell, and the last sign of him I’d seen was his tail lights.

A few days later, his brother Wes and I had gone to the impound to see if anything could be salvaged and recovered from inside the vehicle. The image of the smashed chunks of metal still aches in my chest. I don’t know how he survived, but clearly, he’s meant to be here for something. Perhaps to finish our argument. No one should have come out of the car alive. His doctors keep saying how lucky he is to only have a broken leg and ribs. They believe the impact caused a brain injury, which is why he’s in a coma. His young body needs time to recuperate.

A yawn breaks through, reminding me how tired I am. The sterile smell piping through the vents and the annoyingly attentive nurses are starting to weigh on my last nerve. The way they gawk at Jacob is borderline inappropriate. Even in a coma, the guy can rattle a girl’s heart. Lord knows he’s always been able to shake mine up.

To make matters worse, the doctors don’t have answers for us. They spew a lot of ‘nothing’s changed’ and ‘all you can do is wait’, none of which gives any sort of comfort or takes away an iota of our pain. This hurt, this unbearable ache I feel for Jacob’s absence is intolerable. Over time things are supposed to grow easier, but I don’t understand how it’s possible. Whoever created the mantra is full of crap.

Jacob and I have known each other since I was eight and he was ten. Inseparable is more like it. My family moved in next door, and at my young age, I thought my world was over. A child of theatrics is how my father described me. Jacob likes to argue I still hold a bit of an eight-year-old in my heart, releasing her when the time is right and most beneficial for my personal causes.

The afternoon my family pulled up to our new home, the giant tree house was the only redeeming feature. It wasn’t until high school when I discovered the closet was large enough to hide Jacob’s six-four stature that anything about the house impressed me.

I ran to the backyard, stretching to climb the rungs two at a time.

“This is my tree house,” a young boy, close to my age, called from the bottom of the ladder. He wore a football jersey and stain-kneed jeans.

“No, it’s in my yard, so it’s my treehouse.” I scurried down to come face to face with him.

He flashed a toothy grin. “I’m Jacob. You must be the new neighbor.”

With one smile, he had stolen my heart, and since then, he’s broken it and put it back together more times than I can count.

“The Broncos still suck, Jacob,” I utter, hoping to trigger something and force him to open his eyes. If anything is going to work, talking about his football team will. I have tried every last thing in the playbook and defeat sets in every time my plan doesn’t work. Stupidly, I’ve even searched Google for ways to wake a coma patient.

“If that doesn’t stir him up then I don’t know what will, sweetheart.” Mrs. Matthews makes her way over to her oldest son, pushing long strands of hair off his forehead to kiss him. She loves him unconditionally and deeper than I can ever understand. Her eyes scan over the monitors. “How’s he doing today?” Hope screams in her words.

Once again, I have the privilege to disappoint her.

“No change,” I answer, mimicking the doctors I hate so much.

I stand and wrap my arms around her. Mrs. Matthews hugs me back with the same urgency.

“Everything will be okay. Something will change soon because Jacob’s a fighter, and there’s no chance in hell he’d leave you behind.”

I almost believe her whispered words.

“Enough with the tears.” She swipes her cheeks then mine. “Now, I need you to go downstairs. Rachel’s waiting. She’s under strict orders to force you to go out tonight.”

I wave her off, grabbing my purse strap and crossing it over my body. “I plan on going home to catch up on some sleep. Maybe do a little homework.”

I have zero intentions of going anywhere tonight that doesn’t accept sweatpants as an appropriate choice. Comfy is my nighttime style these days. Between school, my internship, and daily hospital visits, I barely have time to remember to feed myself, let alone doll myself up to pretend I’m having a good time.

“You and I both know he’d want you to go have some fun, and your girl, she screams fun from every pore of her body. She won’t take no for an answer, so good luck dodging her.” She pats me on the back and shoves me towards the door.

The gleam in Mrs. Matthews eyes says it all. She’s proud of the coercion she’s cooked up with my best friend.

I step out of the room, and shake my head in a slow, soft rhythm. This is all too much. The admiration and the guilt are in constant competition these days for who will be the lucky one to take the final blow and put me out of my misery.

Mr. Matthews sits on a bench near the elevator beside Wes, Jacob’s brother. They are closer than any brothers I know. When college applications were due, it had come as no surprise Wes chose Greystone. Like me, he’s a freshman and the closest thing I have to a brother myself. The moment his bored gaze lands on me, he jumps from the bench and wraps me in a tight squeeze.

“Hey, sis,” Wes whispers into my hair.

“Hey, Wesley.” I lean back and peer into his blue eyes, a near duplicate of Jacob’s icy color.

“You know how much I hate my full name.”

“What are older sisters for?”

“Well, for one, you aren’t my sister. Yet.” He winks. “And you’re only older by six weeks. It hardly counts, Char Char.”

At the mention of the possibility of Jacob and me getting married, my chest tightens.

Wes walks backwards, his hands out wide at his sides. “Rachel’s looking smoking hot, by the way. Saw her lurking around the downstairs lobby, giving doctors heart attacks.” He pumps his closed fist in front of his chest.

“Want to come out with us? Keep her in line?”

Please take me up on the offer. Please, for the love of God, come out with us and take all the pressure of going out away. She’ll focus on you and not me.

“I’ll pass tonight. You call me if you get too out of hand and need a ride from your little brother.” Wes passes to Jacob’s room, a devilish grin on his face.

I face Mr. Matthews. “So, you really have to leave?” I fret, afraid of what it will be like to care for Jacob on my own.

We’ve all done our best in balancing our own responsibilities around visits, and even though Wes will still be here, too, some of us know how to juggle better than others.

I witness Wes’s shoulders sag when he opens the door to Jacob’s room. Worry shadows his eyes when he looks at his older brother lying in the hospital bed. No one can hold it against Wes for not always being present even when he’s there.

“We’ll be back on the weekends and during the week when possible.” He draws in a long, exhausted breath, pulling me back into our conversation. His gaze dances beyond my shoulder to Jacob’s door. “It’s going to be hard to leave him, but we’re running out of options. All of our vacation time has been depleted.”

“I’ll be here,” I offer. “And you’re only a few hours away.”

My attempt to calm his nerves is futile. My words don’t make me feel better, so why in the hell would it bring any peace to Mr. Matthews?

“I know you will, sweetie, and it helps knowing he won’t be alone. We wouldn’t know what to do if he didn’t have you.” He pulls me in for a hug. My arms lay limp, stuck under Mr. Matthews’. When he leans away, his eyes darken. His unwavering fear causes my throat to close. “Have a good time tonight, okay?”

Somber music plays as the elevator descends to the main lobby of the hospital. It feels impossible to keep this all up. When the Matthews look at me, they see perfection, a girl worthy of their precious son. What if sometimes I don’t want to be that girl? Being worthy of someone isn’t the problem. It’s the flawless version they see through rose tinted glasses that haunts me.

The cool metal on the elevator panel is a forgiving sensation against the heat rolling off my skin. Once the doors open, my best friend will be waiting for me. I can never be prepared for the fire storm that is Rachel.

With heavy steps, I exit.

Rachel jumps from the chair and runs her hands up and down her hips in display. “It’s about damn time. I thought I was going to kill a few doctors with this outfit.”

“The no underwear is a nice touch.” I link my arm through hers and rest my head on her shoulder. Relief is always found beside her.

“I’m not a savage,” she scoffs. “I have on underwear. They just happen to give the illusion they aren’t there because of the thin material and nude hue.” Even without seeing her, my instincts tell me she’s wiggling her eyebrows with pride.

Rachel and I grew up together. Jacob says she’s my other half. I’ve learned I need people like her around. Sometimes I find it impossible to speak loudly in defense of myself when needed. Rachel, well, she’ll stand up for herself and everyone else without a second thought. She’s a ballbuster. She roars when the rest of us back down.

Ridiculously smart to the point it’s annoying, she’ll correct your grammar and ramble off facts most people shouldn’t know. Her gorgeous long, blonde hair is closer to white than gold, framing eyes as dark and deep as the Atlantic Ocean. And for someone only a few inches over five feet, her huge boobs leave quite the impression. Loyal, intelligent, beautiful, and stacked. No wonder most girls hate her.

I don’t know what would’ve happened if we hadn’t gotten accepted to the same university. The thought of not having her in my life is nearly unbearable. Some would call us co-dependent. A lot of people believe a soul mate is the person you end up marrying. I disagree. Your soul mate is the person who stands by your side no matter what. Rachel knows me and is willing to call me out when necessary. It’s one thing Jacob has never understood. Our friendship is rare. If you want me, you get her, too.

And here she is, smiling at me. If she doesn’t stop the grin, her face will split in half before we reach my car.

Intending to avoid a night of drinking and dancing, I pull my keys from my purse and attempt to skate around her. She slips between me and the door, sidestepping in front of me when I reach for the handle. Her thin arm blocks my entrance.

“Oh no, you don’t,” she shouts. Her car is a few spaces over, and she drags me by the arm behind her. “We’re going out tonight, but before we do, I need to take you home. We’re finding the tightest dress and the tallest heels in your closet. Only then will we go dance away the shit-tastic life you lead right now.”

I have a few options here. The first being to kick my best friend’s ass and make a run for it. Or I can pull up my big girl panties and do what she says. Forgetting my shit-tastic life, as she so lightly puts it, doesn’t sound half bad right about now.

My groan bounces off the brick of the hospital, echoing through the parking lot. “Fine, one drink, tops. The deal is if I don’t complain, then I get to head home by midnight,” I argue. A few bats of my eyelashes paired with the sad distraught puppy dog eyes, and she gives into my demands.

Rachel nods and smiles. “It’s a deal. Not one word of resentment or negativity. I want you to have fun, even if that means I need to force feed tequila down that long, beautiful neck of yours.”

Like always, I don’t put up much fight, and ten minutes later, I unlock the front door to our apartment. My purse lands on the kitchen counter, and I sprawl in my usual comfortable spot on the couch. The overstuffed cushion is a nice change from the hard hospital chair. They have a way of sucking every bit of life out of a person.

“If you plan on being tucked into bed by midnight, then you need to get your butt in gear. It’s almost nine, which only gives us three hours to get your skinny ass drunk.” Rachel pulls me to my feet. “Shouldn’t be too difficult, since you’re a lightweight and under practiced.”

Shoulders slumped in resignation, I don’t say anything as I follow her into my bedroom. My silence is the perfect act of an obedient friend. Hangers clink together while Rachel rummages through my closet. She grumbles and sighs with disgust of my choice of clothes. Clothes fly onto every available surface of the floor.

“Yes! I found the perfect dress!” she exclaims. “Remind me to take you shopping.”

Dangling from her hand is the only tight article of clothing I own. The bandage dress is hidden all the way in the back of my closet for a reason. She extends it in front of her and then pulls it back against her body. Her amused grin widens as she showboats the cobalt mini dress.

“This is fucking hot. Why haven’t you ever worn this? Why haven’t I borrowed this?” She carelessly pokes through my jewelry box and pulls out a few longer necklaces and earrings, holding them up to my ears.

“You can have it. Jacob’s always said it shows too much thigh.” Rachel’s eyes soften when she hears the defeat behind those words. “He meant well,” I add.

“You must have kept it in hopes of wearing it someday, or else you would’ve just thrown it out.” Her eyebrow quirks. “Go slide this on. Put on a pair of ‘fuck me’ heels and get your ass in gear.” She bumps her hip into mine. This is her attempt to lighten the mood.

“I don’t need ‘fuck me’ heels.” I snatch the hanger from her grasp. “And I suppose there’s no reason not to wear it now.”

The sleek fabric cools my skin as it slips up my legs and over my thighs, until it covers all the important parts. In the mirror, I assess the damage. Too much thigh. Too revealing. Still, I don’t look half bad. Old habits die hard. I’ve always believed Jacob’s small critiques were for my own good.

“Quit tugging.” Rachel swats my hands. “It’s not going to get any longer, and thank fuck for that. Look at those legs.” She grazes her hands over the exposed skin. “It’s a shame Jacob always wanted this all covered up.”

Rachel rests her chin on my shoulder, and I stare at her in the reflection of the mirror. Sometimes words don’t need to be spoken to have an exchange. We’ve discussed Jacob and me. She’s asked questions. I’ve bared my soul. She knows what I feel. Just as I know she’s here for me.

“Can we get going before I change my mind?” I pull a long, silver necklace over my head as Rachel hands me a pair of black heels. The smug grin on her face irritates every cell in my body. She follows behind me. A smack lands on my butt after she slams the apartment door.

“Here’s to a night of fun!” Rachel hollers.

I cringe, incapable of giving her the enthusiasm she needs.

*****

Murphy’s parking lot is full when our taxi pulls in a little after nine-thirty. I’ve heard of this place. Jacob says it can get kind of crazy most nights. His frat brothers have dragged him a handful of times, but since it’s twenty-one and over, I haven’t had the pleasure.

A giant man stands in front of the entrance with his arms folded over his broad chest. His presence makes my breaths shallow. I glance to Rachel and then back to the door with wide eyes.

Rachel waves a dismissive hand. “You’re covered. I slept with a guy last semester. He has a cousin in the fake ID business. I had one made up of you, hoping one day you’d participate in a night of debauchery.” She flicks her finger against the new ID. It’s identical to the one safely tucked in my wallet. Except now, apparently, I’m twenty-one.

“Let’s get this over with,” I groan through clenched teeth. It won’t be as painful as I’m letting on. Secretly, I get a kick out of bugging Rachel, and nothing annoys her more than someone not willing to let loose.

As we approach the bouncers, a gust of wind blows up my dress, if this strip of fabric even qualifies as a dress. The one holding the clipboard glances up. A grin plasters on his face as he eyes me pulling on the fabric. He nudges the guy next to him. Their attention locks on my legs. Great, now I’m a steak for them to eat.

Tattoos decorate the knuckles of his hand pinching my ID. Ballsy move to ink skin that will seldom be covered. He clearly doesn’t care how others will perceive him. For that alone, I’m jealous of him.

“Have a good time tonight, beautiful,” he growls, sliding his tongue along the ring protruding from his lip.

My eyes bulge. At my reaction, a rowdy laugh escapes him. Rachel giggles, pulling me towards the front door.

“You’re so naïve, and it’s the most endearing thing about you. Those guys out there looked like they wanted to take you home and draw you a bath.” Rachel ushers me to the bar with her hand resting on my waist.

When she realizes I’m ignoring her comment, she leans over the bar in hopes of getting one of the bartender’s attention. I, being the best friend, I am, stand behind her so her butt cheeks aren’t on display for everyone’s enjoyment. Not that she cares.

“Holy shit,” Rachel whispers.

‘Holy shit’ can mean a million things in her world, all of which I ignore most days.

“Holy fuck, I might be in love.” She reaches behind her, swatting at the air, looking to connect with me.

“Who’s caught your attention now?” I ask, unaffected by her excitement. The drink special menu catches my eye, and I pick it up and scan down the list. Slippery nipple. Sex on the Beach. Redheaded slut.

Rachel pokes my shoulder, pulling me away from our sexually charged drink choices. Once she has my attention, her stare drifts to the tall specimen with his back to us. He has to be at least six-four, with broad shoulders and a certain confident, charismatic swagger. The tall drink of water grins at girls waiting patiently for their drinks and nods to guys as he slides beers across the bar. He’s well liked, and he knows it.

The bartender circles to face us. An audible gasp slips from my mouth as his face is bathed in light.

“Why does he look so familiar?” Rachel surveys him with wide, appreciative eyes. Her reaction is something a guy like him is used to.

“Duke Anderson,” I whisper. Or at least I think I whisper. He closes the gap between where he poses, and I stand gawking like a lunatic.

Tattoos, brilliant green eyes, and all on display in front of me.

He smirks as he leans across the bar. “In the flesh.”

“You two know each other?” Rachel’s eyes bounce between him and me, hopeful for an introduction, as he and I have a silent standoff.

“No,” I answer.

“Yes,” he says.

Well, shit.