Page 133 of We Were Once

Thinking I need something harder to drink to fix my mood, I pad my way back down the hall, but an open door to an office catches my attention. I shouldn’t be nosy, but I’m curious why he doesn’t exist in any other room of this huge place.

Rain pours down outside the small window, and I find my way to the desk, clicking on a lamp. He’s a chef, so the papers strewn across the desktop are confusing. They’re not menus, but contracts. Seeing his signature upside down has me curious, but I don’t want to snoop. I’m about to move on until I spy my dad’s signature next to it. I’d recognize it anywhere, dated six years ago.

I square my shoulders puzzled by what that could be. With a finger pressed to the document, I walk around to the other side and lean over. Each word I read brings a new misery. Confession.

Reckless driving.

Kidnapping.

Stolen vehicle.

Agree to never see.

Chloe.

48

Chloe

None of this makes sense despite seeing it in black and white. Like my memory from that night, I’m at a disadvantage. Is my brain protecting me from the truth of what happened or playing tricks on me?

I’m so angry and tired of living in the dark. I can’t handle a new wave of pain today. The truth is locked inside me but where is the key?

Wrapping my arms around my stomach, I try to stop the pain that’s beginning to course through me with each new page. Before I know I’m crying, a tear falls on the dried ink, smudging the words as I riddle my way through the betrayal.

“Hey there, beautiful,” Joshua says, his voice lighthearted—so sweet, so trusting. “What are you doing?”

I look up, staring at him, my anger building. After reading what I did, I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt. Holding the page with his signature, I ask, “What is this?”

The smile that matched his tone falls as if he’s seen a ghost. “Chloe,” he starts toward me with his hands up in surrender. Already? He’s already surrendering.

“Only a guilty person gives up that easily.”

“I’m not guilty.” His tone hardens as his eyes darken.

The bottom drops out of my fairytale once again and takes my heart with it. I’m supposed to be alone. I’m just not reading the signs. There’s no other way this can be explained. I will never have it all. I’ll never have the guy and the dream job. I’ll always be empty, just shy of those reaching those goals.

“I’ve read your confession.” I slam the paper against his chest as I rush past and down the hall. He was so quick to deny but not plead his case. I don’t care about my toiletries. I grab my bag and pull on a pair of leggings. Slipping my sneakers back on without socks, I run back out, colliding into him. The sound of the bag hits the floor between us.

He grabs my arms, catching me from falling back. “Don’t jump to conclusions. I can explain—”

“I think a signed confession says it all, don’t you think?” Screw the bag. I’ll buy new things. I duck under his arm and run for the door.

His voice trails behind me. “I was tricked. I thought I was signing something else.”

His words have me coming to a stop in the entryway. I keep my back to him, refusing to give him more of my tears and anguish, hiding them behind the chip on my shoulder. Sucking in a staggered breath, I ask, “What did you think you were signing?”

It’s so quiet between us that I can hear his frantic breathing. I need him to fix this, to make it better, to make me see this was all a big misunderstanding. I finally turn around, not able to hold onto pride any longer. As if I’d placed the tears in the corners of his eyes myself, they glisten in the low light. “Please tell me I’m wrong.” Scraping his hands through his hair, the tick of his is a dead giveaway as he searches my face for an answer he doesn’t possess. I yell, “What were you signing, Joshua?”

His silence is torture. “After all this time, I would have thought you’d have the lies already lined up,” I cry, wiping away these traitorous tears. “Were you naïve enough to think I’d never discover the truth?” Tapping my hand to my chest, I ask, “How could you? How could you let me feel the burden of your guilt all these years? I blamed myself when you chose to hurt me.”

That lights the fuse and anger narrows his eyes toward me. “My guilt? I don’t feel guilty for anything. Everything I did was for everyone else. Everything I did, including signing that fucking piece of paper, was in your best interest.”

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