My mouth was dry. "Wait, you know this place? Where are we going?"
As if to answer my question, he slowed the bike to a crawl, then stopped. He slid off the bike without saying a word, and I looked around, confused.
"Jax, what are you doing? Why are we stopping here?"
The bike’s headlamp illuminated one of the strangest and ugliest houses I had ever seen. It looked like a collection of trailers from different eras—at least half a dozen in total—but instead of sitting next to one another, they had been connected together in a lurching, zig-zagging pattern.
"Get off the bike, Riley. I need to show you something." He walked onto the mostly dirt lawn, away from the road.
Something about the house seemed wrong. It wasn’t just the shoddy construction or the way the trailers clashed. My instinctual alarms were going off: Desolate area. Bullet-ridden signs. Nobody knew where we were. I’d hurriedly left without my purse and cell phone. It was all adding up to a terrible, Hitchcockian vision in my head. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run away. I wanted to do anything but get off the bike and walk around with Jax.
Jax extended his hand for me to get off the motorcycle, but I just looked at him with wide, terrified eyes.
I saw a sad smile come to his face. "Don’t be scared," he said, his voice gentler than I expected. "This is where I grew up."
I gasped. Was he joking? "Really?"
The look of shame on Jax’s face made me feel guilty that I’d ever doubted him. I got off the bike and tried to act normal as I walked across the lawn. "It looks, um . . . cozy."
He raised an eyebrow. "You don’t have to sugarcoat it," he said. "It looks like a pile of f**king trash. And it always has."
There was nothing I could say to that. I studied his face, waiting for him to say more. I watched as his face shifted, almost imperceptibly, and realized that he’d started to shake. Fury, pain, grief, shame—I didn’t know which one he was feeling, or if all of them had mixed together, but he was quaking with it, his breaths hard and steady.
"I don’t know who lives here now, but my dad used to live here—before he went to prison. He was always into something or other," he said, each word halting. "He lived here with me and he never . . . ever . . . let me forget how angry he was at me."
I approached closer. We were in the place Jax had run away from, the place where his nightmares had started. But what had happened in those walls?
"Why was he so angry at you?" I asked.
"It started when . . ." he trailed off. Suddenly, his face became a mask with a thousand-yard stare. "Look, I thought I knew, once. But after a while, I stopped asking. He didn’t have to have a reason. I think he was just . . . like that."
"God, Jax," I said, my voice dropping to a whisper. "I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I pushed you."
"You didn’t know. You were trying to do the right thing. I’m just too f**ked up to talk about it. That’s what this house did to me, Riley."
I shuddered. My parents had always been there for me, helping me when my life became chaotic, supporting me when I went to therapy to get over Connor. I couldn’t imagine what it’d be like to have grown up in a house like Jax’s.
"So you just stayed here until you could run away."
"Yeah," he said, his eyes haunted as they roamed over the connected trailers. "It was my own personal hell."
"And I forced you back here," I said, wincing with a sudden rush of shame as I said the words. I’d thought Jax’s problems were on the same level as mine—a bad ex, or a stupid mistake when he was young.
He turned around, looking at the neighborhood. "I never wanted to come here again," he said, his voice threatening to crack. "All I ever wanted to do was forget. Start over, you know? But the closer we got to Los Angeles, the harder it was. Every venue, every mile driven, it all brought us closer to right here. To where it all started."
I stayed silent, waiting for him to finish. His piercing eyes studied the mishmash of trailers intensely.
"This morning," he said, his jaw working, "I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I saw—I saw his face and I—I had to go for a ride, clear my mind. I knew I could have told you or maybe Sky or Chewie but I just—I couldn't"
I put a hand on his back. Even through his clothing, I could tell that his muscles were tense.
"And that thing yesterday with Kev was," he started, but then took a deep breath and shook his head, "it was stupid. Just stupid bullshit. It had nothing to do with him."
I nodded softly. I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been, or how pushy I must have seemed to Jax. "I should have listened to you more. I’m sorry."
He turned back to me and stepped close, until we were almost toe to toe. Looking into my eyes, he said, "I know you wanted to help. You thought you could help me move on if I faced the past. You thought you could help me make sense of it." He wrapped me in his arms, and I buried my face in his chest. "And I know you meant well, but . . . I don’t want that. What happened to me didn’t make sense, and it never will. I buried my past because I wanted it to stay dead."
His words tore at my heart. I stepped back to look at him. "Do you just want to bury it forever?"
Jax looked away. "I knew it would happen. As soon as I told you, it’d be alive again. All of it, my whole past—"
"No!" I said vehemently. "I won’t bring it up. I won’t even mention it, not ever, not if you don’t want me to. I promise."
He touched my cheek and his face was so sad that it made me feel like crumpling to the street. "It doesn’t make any difference," he said, his voice gentler than I’d ever heard it. "Even if you never talked to me about it, I’d see it in your eyes. In the way you look at me."
The words hurt, but his face made it clear that he truly believed it wouldn’t be the same after this. I wasn’t sure if he was wrong.
He lifted my chin until our eyes were inches apart. "So I couldn’t—I couldn’t tell you before and still look in your eyes. But I had to make a choice. It was either my past or you. And I chose you."
My eyes filled with tears. "That means a lot. It means everything."
His dark features hardened. "If you’d asked me before the tour started whether I could look someone in the face who knew where I came from, who I was before . . . I’d have said no. But that was then."