She sighs in defeat. “I’ve been thinking about you so much lately.”

“What about me?” I ask her.

Dakota swallows and pulls her bottom lip between her teeth.

“Just that I love you, Landon.”

She says the words so casually, as if they wouldn’t unwind something inside of me, a knot pulled so tight, stuck underneath my rib cage, waiting for her to untie it, to ease the pain.

I haven’t heard those words from her mouth since before I moved to New York. Those three words used to be as natural-sounding to my ears as hearing my own name . . . but not anymore.

Now they cut at me, lashing at the progress I’ve made in recovering from the pain and the loneliness that came with her leaving me.

These three words threaten to break the already fragile fort I’ve been working on constructing since she decided she didn’t want me.

These three words are much more significant to me than she can even fathom, and I feel like my heart is going to rip angrily from my chest at any moment.

I wasn’t expecting a declaration of love. I was prepared for her to throw angry words at me, not this.

I don’t know which would have hurt worse, to be honest.

“I do, Landon.” Dakota’s voice cuts through my silence, and I close my eyes. “I’ve loved you ever since I can remember, and I’m sorry that I keep causing trouble in your life. I hurt you, I know I did, and I’m so sorry—”

Her voice breaks at the end and her eyes gloss with tears. She’s standing closer now, close enough for me to hear her breathing. “I was selfish, I still am, and as fucked up as it is, I can’t bear to see you with anyone else. I’m not ready to share you. I remember the first time I saw you . . .”

I open my eyes and try to catch my breath.

I should stop her from digging up old memories, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I want to hear her say them.

I need to hear them.

“You were riding your bike up and down the street. I could see you from the window in my room. Carter had just gotten home from some camping trip, and one of the parents called my dad with some rumor, something about Carter trying to kiss another boy.”

My heart sinks as her words gnaw at me. She never talks about Carter, not in this much detail, not anymore.

“My dad came barreling down the hallway, belt in hand.” She shudders at the memory.

I do, too.

“Everything was so loud. I remember thinking the house was going to fall down if he didn’t stop.”

Dakota is staring past me. She’s no longer in New York, she’s back in Saginaw. And I’m there with her.

“You were riding your bike in the street and your mom was out there with you, taking pictures . . . or videos maybe, and when Carter started to scream with every lash of that leather belt, I watched you and your mom. She fell somehow, like she tripped over her own feet or something, and you ran over to her like you were the parent and she was the child. I remember wishing I could be strong, like you, and help Carter. But I knew I couldn’t.”

Her lip begins to quiver and my chest is aching, pain shooting through me like a burning star.

“You know how it was. How bad it was when I tried to help.”

I did know. I witnessed her father’s abuse of Carter a few times. My mom called the cops twice before we learned that the system was flawed, so very flawed, and much more complicated than

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