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Authors: Lauren Smith

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BOOK: Catching Raven
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“Speaking of Mia,” Tori clears her throat.

I spin around. The door to the balcony opens up and Mia pokes her head
out, her hazel eyes analyzing the situation. She slips her body through and
closes the door. “What are you ho-bags doing out here?”

“Figuring out the best way for Raven to break up with Brandon,” Tori
covers.

The surprise on Mia’s face is quickly replaced by sympathy. “Oh, no. What
happened?”

“I can’t do it anymore, Mia. He doesn’t make me feel anything out of the
ordinary. There’s no rush of emotion. No excitement. The relationship should be
fresh and fun. I shouldn’t have to try and force a connection with him, or
convince myself he’s the right choice. If he were, I’d feel it. And if we don’t
have it by now, we’re not gonna get it. God, I suck. He’s mapping out our
future, and I’m mapping out our end.”

“You’re not feelin’ it. There’s nothing wrong with that. At the end of
the day, all that matters is whether or not you’re happy with the relationship.
Clearly you’re not, so he’s gotta go,” Mia answers, sliding her hand across her
throat to represent Brandon’s demise.

Tori points to Mia. “What she said.”

“But what should I say to him?”

“Just tell him the truth and try to let him down easy,” Mia suggests.

I take a deep breath and brace myself. I can’t deal with this awful
feeling anymore. Forget what I said earlier about not wanting to break his
heart on my birthday. I have no choice. The longer I wait, the worse this will
become. And I can’t bear the thought of having the word
cheater
plastered onto my guilty conscience. I can barely tolerate
heartbreaker,
but at least by sparing him more pain, hopefully he’ll be able to forgive me
for what I’m about to do.

 

I walk into my room to find Brandon unpacking boxes and categorizing my
stuff, because he knows that’s how I like it. Wish he would stop being so great
for once. It would make my job easier. “Hey, can we talk outside for a minute?”
I ask timidly, leaning my hip against the dresser. My confidence is nowhere to
be found.

“Sure. What’s up?”

I motion my head toward the front door, urging him to follow. As soon as
we hit the hallway, my friends scatter like roaches and pretend to be busy
doing something moderately important. Brandon’s used to their weird behavior at
this point. He opens the front door and ushers me out—a true gentleman until
the end.

Once we make it down to the parking lot, I suggest going to his car for
some privacy. Getting dumped sucks. No need to throw salt on the wound by
allowing bystanders to witness it.

Once we climb inside, he asks, “What’s going on?” There’s an edge of
nervousness to his voice.

Be brave and honest. Be brave and honest,
I chant in my head.

“Tell me something you can’t stand about me.”

My request catches him off guard. He shifts around in his seat, clearly
uncomfortable. “Uh...is this some kind of test?”

I adjust my body so I’m facing him. “No, it’s not. Tell me something
about my personality that drives you crazy.”

His response is so instantaneous you’d think it was queued up. “Not a
thing. You’re perfect.”

Liar!

He grasps my chin and strokes the side of my cheek with his thumb. I
close my eyes and relish the feeling one last time. I’m about to break his
heart, and he’s the one comforting me. How messed up is that?

I reopen my eyes and use them to summon the truth out of him. “Be
honest.”

I can’t explain why, but I need this. Maybe it’s to make myself feel
better for what’s about to happen. Maybe it’s because I deserve to suffer. Or
maybe it’s because deep down I’m searching for something more, something real.

He releases my chin and rests one hand on top of the steering wheel and
stares out the windshield, lost in thought. While his gaze is fixated on
something else, mine is still fixated solely on him. Several beats pass.
Finally, he looks over. There’s a sadness in his eyes that wasn’t there before.

“Why are you doing this?”

“Doing what?”

“Trying to pick a fight with me on your birthday.”

“I’m not. I’m trying to get you to tell the truth.”

“By hurting you,” he says, confused.

I look down and fumble around with the hem of my shorts, searching for
the right words. There aren’t any. There’s nothing I can say or do to make this
easier.

“Look, Brandon, you are by far one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever known—”

“But…” he presses, starting to see where this is going.

“And you’ve been so good to me.” I let that one linger. I never want him
to think things could’ve turned out differently had he treated me better. The
reality is, I couldn’t have asked for a more thoughtful, attentive boyfriend.
It just wasn’t in the cards for us. That’s nobody’s fault. Although, it sure
feels like mine right now.

“Spit it out, Raven.”

I flinch at his harsh tone. A lone tear escapes and falls down my cheek.
I wipe it away with the back of my hand. When I finally work up the courage to
look him straight in the eyes again, I crumble. “I’m so sorry. Please don’t
hate me.”

His hands grip the steering wheel tightly, making the veins under his
skin bulge. “Are you seriously breaking up with me? On your birthday? In my
car?”

More tears fall. I nod, compounded with heaps of guilt.

“Are you at least going to give me a reason why?”

I take a calming breath and force myself to form a coherent sentence. He
deserves an explanation. He deserves a lot more than that, but I can’t be the
one to give it to him. “I like you, Brandon, but as a friend. This isn’t
working anymore.”

He glares at me. “Wow, really? That’s news to me. So things aren’t
perfect for two fucking seconds and you decide to kick me to the curb like
yesterday’s trash? You don’t even bother to give me a chance to fix it first?
Jesus, Raven.” He runs his hands through his hair, considering his next words.
“You’re so selfish sometimes. You only care about yourself and anything that
benefits you.” He shakes his head like he doesn’t understand what he ever saw
in me. That’s the sharpest blade of them all.

I stay silent, processing his coarse words, unsure of what to say or do
next. I didn’t expect things to go this way. I knew it wouldn’t be smooth, but
I never thought he’d lash out at me in retaliation. Yes, he’s upset and hurt,
but so am I. Does he seriously think I wanted to hurt him on purpose? That’s
the last thing I ever intended. Luckily, I don’t have to ponder any of this for
long.

“Please get out of my car,” he says with an air of finality. He starts
the engine and leans back against the seat, anxiously waiting for me to leave.

I reach down into my pocket and fish out the earrings he gave me. I open
the glove compartment and place them inside.

“Just keep them.”

I ignore his comment and close the compartment. I turn to grab the handle
and pause, looking back over my shoulder at him one last time. “I really am
sorry,” I whisper, opening the door and stepping out. As soon as I shut the
door, he reverses and hightails it out of the parking lot, leaving an imaginary
trail of dust behind, and a not-so-imaginary birthday girl in tears.

 

FIVE

e     r     i     c

 

“Where’s Raven?” I ask, scanning the
living room. My gaze settles on two wide-eyed faces: Tori and Mia. They’re sitting
together on the couch, watching the front door like hawks. Tori’s biting her
nails and Mia’s knee is bouncing up and down restlessly. They’re acting like a
couple of tweakers on standby.

Something’s up.

Without bothering to take her eyes off the door, Mia answers. “She’s
outside.”

“We just came from outside and we didn’t see her.”

Emilio grabs a brat off the plate I’m holding and walks over to the
counter to grab a bun and some Dijon mustard, oblivious to what’s happening in
Girl World.

“That’s because she went out front to break up with Brandon,” Tori
explains, then she takes a cue from Emilio and stands up and walks over to grab
a brat.

She’s breaking up with him?

“How long ago?”

Tori shrugs. “I don’t know, fifteen minutes?”

Without thinking, I shove the plate into her unsteady arms and leave to
go find Raven.

“Hey! Warn me next time before you do that!”

The door closes behind me. I ignore Tori’s comment and take the stairs
two at a time until I reach the pavement. Raven’s car is still parked in its
designated spot. I look around for Brandon’s car, but it’s nowhere in sight.

Shit.
Maybe she left with him?

No. She wouldn’t leave without telling one of us.

The sound of sniffling beckons my attention. I look over to find Raven sitting
on the grass underneath a tree. She’s hugging her knees to her chest
protectively, crying. Christ. The drama. Everything’s life or death with this
girl. I’m relieved she broke it off with What’s His Face, though. They were a
wrong fit from the start. The guy can’t hang. I tried to tell her that several
times, but did she listen? Of course not.

I’ll bet he can’t even name her favorite book. It’s
East of Eden,
by
the way. The reason it’s her favorite? It’s the only book she deems powerful
enough to make her self-reflect. Favorite movie?
Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Her newest crisis is feeling torn between majoring in what’s practical
and chasing her dreams as far as they’ll take her. She’s hates uncertainty, but
loves surprises. Those tidbits will get you VIP status. It’s a good thing we
each have something special planned later.

What about her fears? Does he know she’s deathly afraid of cockroaches
and thrift shopping? I can’t get her anywhere near a Goodwill or Salvation
Army. She’ll hyperventilate. No, that doesn’t mean she’s shallow. She’s just
more honest about her phobias than most.

When she’s upset, she organizes anything and everything she can get her
hands on. That’s why she’s banned from my kitchen cupboards, my paint
collection, and my closet. I can never find anything after she’s done.

I guess love is similar to art in that regard. It’s picking up on the
small, seemingly insignificant aspects. Paying close attention to things that
most people skip over and don’t think twice about. An eye for detail. That’s
what separates me from the rest of the pack. I’m not saying I’m worthy of her.
Who am I kidding? What can I offer? She deserves to live in a castle, and all I
can give her is a shack. It would be colorful and nicely decorated, though.
Original artwork.

But back to the crying thing. I can’t stand to watch her cry. I sigh and
walk over there, on a mission to make it all better.

“What happened?”

She lifts her head, surprised to see me. Black mascara streaks are
running down her cheeks, and her eyes are all red and puffy.

I shove both hands into my pockets and shuffle my feet back and forth,
scuffing my paint-splattered Tims. I’m not good with sadness. Or coming up with
the right thing to say. But if I don’t pipe in, this level of discomfort is
going to become unbearable. Neither of us wants that. I pull myself together.
“Let me rephrase. Why the fuck are you crying on your birthday?”

“I broke up with Brandon. He kicked me out of his car and took off.”

“Sooo...he took it well then?” I deadpan.

She rolls her raccoon eyes and kicks me so hard in the shin I double
over.

“Dammit, woman! Get a grip!”

She stands up and brushes the dirt off her butt. “This is all your
fault!”

“How is this my fault?”

“You were the one who told me I wasn’t happy with him.”

“Because you weren’t.”

“That’s none of your business!” she shrieks.

Time out. Can somebody throw me a pair of earmuffs?
In between shin rubs, I have to keep
reminding myself not to put my hands on her, despite the overwhelming urge to
wrap my fingers around her neck and throttle her. “You made it my business. You
made it everyone’s business when you ran around and whined about how unhappy
you were.”

Telling by the expression on her face, I’ve gone too far. She’s about to
freeze me out, or go thermonuclear. I’m not sure which is worse.

I take a step back and run my hands through my hair, bracing myself for
the storm. I’ve yet to meet anyone who riles me up more than Raven. We bring
out the best in each other. And the absolute worst. That’s the problem with catching
feelings. Sometimes it happens so suddenly, before you even realize what’s
going on, you’ve become a different person—someone you barely recognize.
Different isn’t always better, either. I witnessed that firsthand with my
parents.

 “Alright! I get it! I’m a horrible person. I only care about myself and
anything that revolves around me. I’m sorry I burdened y’all. Here I thought I
was leaning on my friends for moral support. I’m sorry you find me so difficult
to deal with. I’m sorry I’m so high-maintenance. I’m sorry I have no redeeming
qualities. There. Have I said it all? If not, spare me the tirade. Brandon
already beat you to the punch, like, fifteen minutes ago.”

I was about to apologize for the low blow, but this bitch fit…well, I’ve
lost my train of thought. “He said all that to you?”

“More or less,” she mutters dejectedly. She crosses her arms over her
chest. “He told me I was selfish for not giving him a chance to fix the
relationship.”

Fresh tears fall down her face. She turns and saunters across the parking
lot, a move I’m all too familiar with. Why does she always do that?
Translation: she’s over it. I refrain from chasing her down. I need to chill
out and give her space to clear her head.

I keep an eye on her from a distance. She lays down on the hood of my car
in the beating sun and stares up at the powder blue sky. Watching her like this
reminds me of when we were neighbors. There were nights when I’d roll in from a
late night graffiti session and catch her stargazing outside in her hammock. I
always wondered if she was secretly staying up on purpose. I spent more time
than I’d care to admit trying to figure out what was on her mind. Was she
thinking about me? Did she know her very presence was my sole motivation for
getting up early and going to school every day? I don’t think I’ve ever told
her that. Randomly seeing her face in the halls made it worth the endless hours
of boredom and detention stints.

The better part of me refuses to let that very same girl be upset on her
birthday. I snap out of it and jog across the parking lot. When I reach my car,
my butt slides against the hood and makes a loud farting noise. I stiffen. One
second goes by...two...three. I risk taking a peek at her.

“That wasn’t me.”

She can barely keep a straight face.

What a way to break the ice.

I lean back against the windshield, crossing my feet at the ankles. One
arm slips behind my head. Even though we’re lying side by side, she’s a million
miles away. I reach down to touch her hand, determined to bring her back. When
my palm grazes her skin, she unexpectedly flips her hand over and interlaces
our fingers. I exhale a sigh of disbelief, and relief. 

It feels natural to hold her hand—along with scary, exciting, and
intimate. It’s the first time she’s ever let me touch her this way. Probably
the last. What happened in the kitchen earlier doesn’t count. We weren’t
touching. That was pretty incredible in itself, though. But I have to keep
reminding myself that her judgment is clouded.

As much as I want to take whatever this is between us further, I’m well
aware that putting the moves on a girl less than twenty-four hours after a
breakup is a big no-no—even for me. Then again, we all know how I feel about
boundaries. If her guilt weren’t holding the situation hostage, I’d probably go
for it.
Has it even been twenty-four minutes?

“For the record, letting go of someone when you’re unhappy may seem like
the selfish choice, but it makes you merciful in the long run. Nobody wants to
be caged, least of all you. Never apologize for that. Besides, it’s not like
you were married with kids ’n shit.”

“Tell that to Brandon,” she mutters.

“Fuck that guy. He doesn’t even know the first thing about you. Never
did. And I can tell you where you went wrong in this whole situation.”

“Oh, really? Enlighten me.”

“Where was his latté? His home cooked breakfast? Did those things ever
even cross your mind before jumping in his car? Shame on you. I taught you
better. Bad grasshopper.” I throw in a Mr. Miyagi accent for kicks—no pun
intended.

She props herself up on her elbows. “Are you being serious?”

It doesn’t go unnoticed that she’s still holding my hand.

“Don’t knock the method. It works like a charm. People always handle a
breakup better on a full stomach, especially guys. We’re so needy.”

She throws her head back in exasperation. “Oh, my God. The clinginess
level is suffocating.”

“It’s pitiful.”

“And so unattractive.”

“But secretly a little endearing.”

I’m rewarded with the sound of her laugh. I squeeze her hand and hop off
the car.

“Come on. Everyone’s probably wondering if we’re still alive. You need to
eat and get ready for the surprise. I’m saving mine for Thursday Movie Night
when it’s just you and me. And FYI, we’ll be watching
The Big Lebowski.
It’s
my pick this week, remember?”

Her eyes widen with excitement. “Will there be presents?”

“Among other things.”

She rolls off the car ninja-style, then bends down to check her
reflection in my side mirror and gasps at the gruesome sight.

I open the passenger’s door and grab a spare tee out of the front seat.
“Here,” I toss it over the roof.

She holds it out in front and inspects it closely. “Gross. Is this a used
gym shirt?”

“No, but it’s been sitting in my car for over a month, so enjoy.”

She brings it in close and hesitates before taking a whiff.

“See? Told you it wasn’t a gym shirt.”

Her eyes search my face to see if I’m lying. When she’s convinced I’m
not, she uses the hem to meticulously wipe under her eyes. Once we overcome
that massive hurdle, she moves on to scrub her cheeks. Tackling one
world-ending issue at a time today.

“Rave, speed it up. We’ve got places to be and people to see.”

She throws my now mascara-smudged tee at my chest with a handful of
attitude. I use each end to swirl the shirt around until it’s twisted tight like
a rope. I round the car and take my aim.

She backs up. “Don’t you dare.”

When I charge, she bolts.

I chase her around the parking lot until she’s within lashing distance.
When I have a clear shot, I seize the opportunity and snap the shirt right on
her tight ass.

“Ouch!”
she screams, vigorously rubbing her backside. “What the hell!”

“That’s for kicking me in the shin.”

“Next time I’ll aim higher,” she threatens.

“It’ll be your funeral.”

I drape the tee over my shoulder and walk back to the apartment, not
bothering to wait up. Ten steps later, Raven barrels into my side. I wrap my
arm around her neck and casually pull her in. This is the safest method. It’s
all about mastering the art of being near someone without letting them get too
close. Keeping them at arm’s length. Until she’s in the right frame of mind and
gives me a clear sign she wants more, that’s where she’ll stay. I’ve spent
enough effort expressing my desires over the last year only to be shot down. A
person can only take so much rejection.

“Where are we going tonight?” she asks.

“No clue. Tori and Mia planned everything. Your brother and I are just
tagging along for the ride. Better be somewhere good.”

 

* * *

 

What the fuck?

Those are the only three words I can conjure up to accurately describe my
reaction. Why didn’t I see this coming? What bizarre, alternate reality have I
landed in? Looking back, the signs were all there. Glitter on the floor, dim
lighting, and two enticing poles residing on either side of the stage. My
thoughts immediately drifted to strip club. It was a brief twenty seconds where
I thought all of my wildest fantasies were coming together in one beautiful,
wet dream come true. Me, Rave, and two other gorgeous women all partying it up
in a strip joint. Sounds like heaven, right? Minus Emilio imposing as the fifth
wheel, of course. That part I could do without. But seriously. I was about to
pull out my Washingtons and make it rain.

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