Authors: Cora Reilly
Not Meant To Be Broken
by Cora Reilly
Copyright ©2014 Cora Reilly
All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, events and places are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.
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Cover designed by Romantic Book Affairs Designs
Table of Contents
Regret pressed down on my chest, threatening to cr
ush me. This was a new beginning; I couldn’t let my fear get the better of me again. I risked another glance at Dad. It wasn’t only my happiness on the line if I failed. His hands clutched the steering wheel as if it was the only thing keeping him rooted. He didn’t look my way. He almost never did. His brown eyes were far away, caught somewhere in the past, no doubt. Lost in a time when things were easier, in a time when I was still myself, when I knew how to be happy.
I turned back to the window. Cars and houses were a streak of color as we drove by. Motion sickness mingled with nerves in my stomach.
Why had I ever thought this was a good idea?
after three years of hiding at home, I felt the walls closing in on me; because most days I couldn't even stand the sight of my room. And yet it was a safe place for me, possibly the only safe place. A place where nobody ever bothered me, where I could be alone – except for the few hours I spent with Dad after he came home from work.
But I couldn’t go on like this, or I'd never learn to live again.
Learning to live again.
That's all Dad wanted me to try. He’d been worrying too much about me for the last three years, and for entirely different reasons than most parents worried about their teenage children. But I never truly got the chance to be a teenager. The incident prevented that, and though I'm only nineteen the weight bearing down on my soul makes me feel like I've lived for much too long already.
I feel old, worn out, drained.
The happy young girl from before was gone,
by a shadow of my former self.
Sometimes I didn't even recognize myself, and I could only guess how much worse it was for Dad and my brother to witness how I'd changed; how I'd slowly morphed into a corpse going through the motions of the day because I had to, not because I wanted to.
I knew it was time to leave my shell and socialize. I wished it was as easy as it sounded, but if one thing wasn’t easy for me, then it was getting into contact with other people. Closeness was pure torture for me. It made my skin crawl. People scared me. Sometimes I wondered if it would always be like that.
I hated it when people watched me as if I was a freak because of the way I acted. I
so hard to be like them, tried to act normal.
But normal required being close to people, and allowing closeness reminded me of what happened, and that was the one thing I feared even more than closeness itself. Memories – being reminded of what had happened and what I'd lost – were too much for me to bear. They reminded me of what could never be.
I was broken.
Broken with no chance to ever be mended.
Never would I be like I'd been before the incident, never could I be mended. Not that anyone had ever tried to mend me, not that
would have allowed anyone to try.
It was easier to accept that I'd be broken for the rest of my life. Some things weren't meant to be broken, and therefore couldn't be mended – ever. I was one of those things. Whatever had been shattered in the incident, and I was pretty sure it was myself, my entire being, would never be whole again.
It wasn’t like breaking a vase and simply putting it together with some glue. There was no such thing as glue for a broken soul, a broken being like myself. It was a realization that I made a few months after the incident and somehow the realization made my life so much harder, but at the same time easier. Harder because I knew there wasn’t any hope, easier because
I knew there wasn’t any hope. Having hope, and having to see your hopes being shattered over and over again, was so much worse than not having any hope at all. Even complete strangers could see that I wasn’t normal. That's why I’d barely left the house for the last three years, despite Dad's efforts to return me back to life. He gave up eventually and even hired a retired teacher to homeschool me for the last two years of high school. I'd had plenty of friends before the incident, but afterward the thought of facing any of them ever again was too terrifying.
Peterborough was a small town and rumors about the incident spread like wildfire and speculations were all over the news.
The only people who had meager knowledge about the incident were Dad, my brother Brian, and the hospital staff that treated me in the weeks afterward, but even they didn't know everything; If I had any choice in the matter, it would remain that way until the day I died. I'd take the truth into my grave.
I'd already have succeeded, if Dad hadn't saved me twice. After my second attempt, he started sobbing. I couldn't remember ever having seen my dad cry in earnest. He’d told me he wouldn't survive if he lost me, too. Not after having already lost Mom to cancer when I was only twelve.
Even Brian, my invincible brother, had had tears in his eyes when he visited me in the hospital after my second try. After that, I decided I would try to bear my life for their sake. I wouldn’t hurt them more than absolutely necessary. Dad was suffering enough, forced to watch me every day while Brian had left for college shortly before the incident.
was spared most of the drama.
When I suggested to Dad that I wanted to start a new life, I didn't have the slightest clue how to do it exactly. The only thing that had been clear from the beginning was that I had to leave my hometown. Dad came up with a solution that sounded incredibly good at the beginning: I could move in with Brian and his best friend.
We were almost there, only a few more minutes until I'd arrive at my new home. A feeling of sickness spread in my stomach and I closed my eyes for an instant to fight it down.
“Are you alright, Amber?” Dad's worried tone caused me to open my eyes, but I averted my gaze at the look of concern and despair on his face.
“I'm fine, Dad,” I assured him. I stroked the soft fur on Pumpkin's back in an attempt to calm myself. As usual, my cat rewarded me with a low purr before he pressed himself closer against my lap. I caught Dad staring at the cat wistfully and it almost broke my heart. Dad shouldn't have reason to be jealous of a cat. Yet I couldn't bring myself to take his hand or hug him. I wanted to, but something was stopping me.
Our car pulled into the street where Brian lived. This was it: my chance to start a new life. Dad parked the car and turned off the engine. I didn't move and neither did Dad, but ever so slowly I turned my gaze to the side. My heart leaped into my throat.
There, in front of a four-story brownstone apartment building, stood my brother, staring uncertainly at the car. He wasn’t the hesitant type, but with me it was different. I was the reason for his uncertainty. He was probably worried about me.
Dad pushed open the door and got out of the car before walking toward Brian. They hugged. There was no hesitation, no awkwardness.
I wrapped my arms around myself. I wanted that, too.
I fought back the tears threatening to fall, and taking a deep breath I opened the door and left the car. I pressed my cat a bit tighter against my chest as I approached Brian and Dad. They were talking to another guy. He was even taller than Brian, who was already 6’1, and even more muscled. His dark hair was cut really short and he was wearing a BU sweatshirt. He must be Zachary, Brian's best friend.
A new wave of panic rushed over me but I forced my face into a neutral mask. They were watching me as if they expected me to have a hysteric break down any minute. At least, that’s what Dad’s and Brian’s expressions told me.
I wouldn't prove them right. I'd be strong for their sake, and maybe I'd even manage to pretend I was happy. It couldn't be that difficult.
I'd seen other people being happy. I could copy them. Dad kept telling me that I needed to be happy again or
would win. Deep down I knew that they
had already won
. They'd wanted to break me, and they'd broken me. They’d won, and that thought made living so much more unbearable. They’d won, and there was nothing I could do about it.
They had won.
Sighing quietly to myself, I took the last few steps toward Dad, Brian and Zachary.
Brian and I had been waiting on the sidewalk for more than thirty minutes. Brian wanted to be there when his father and sister arrived. I didn’t get it. We would have seen them pull up from our kitchen window.
Brian rubbed his palms against his thighs, eyes glued to the street. It was no fucking wonder that he was cold in that ridiculous checkered button down shirt. My sweatshirt did a better job of keeping the cold at bay. He looked like he was going for the mother-in-law’s delight-look.
Brian cleared his throat. “Remember not to touch her and better don't go too close to her and--”
“And don't be alone in a room with her, I know, Brian. The words are practically burned into my ears,“ I said calmly. “I’ll be on my best behavior.” I patted his shoulder, feeling how tense he actually was.
His expression made it clear that my best behavior might not be enough. I'd never seen him so tense or anxious before. He was definitely more uptight than me, especially since we started law school a few weeks ago, but this was extreme. We’d been friends since our first year in college four years ago and we'd spent a shitload of time together. He was pretty much the only reason why I hadn’t dropped out of college in my first year to spite my father, or why I actually started law school. He worried more than I did but I'd never seen him like this.
Brian hadn’t told me all that much about his sister; he hardly ever spoke of her at all. It had taken more than a year of sharing an apartment until he’d finally told me that she’d experienced hell when she was only sixteen. Brian didn’t like to speak about what happened and he hadn't mentioned the word rape once.
After Brian’s constant words of warning, I was a bit worried about our new living arrangements, but not nearly as much as Brian. Of course we'd have to stop having parties in our apartment, at least the ones with girls and booze. We'd just have to hold them at Kevin’s and Bill’s place instead.
The sound of a car pulling into the street caught my attention; a black Jeep came to a halt about thirty feet from us and a man in his late forties got out. He walked toward Brian and pulled him into an embrace but that wasn’t what had my attention.
Brian’s sister pushed open the door and climbed out of the car, a black cat pressed to her chest. After hearing Brian talk about her, I’d expected her to be a shell, a shadow – someone your eyes passed over. I hadn't imagined her to be so beautiful. She had long wavy, caramel brown hair and pale skin, and was probably a head smaller than me. Her body was covered in an oversized hoodie and bootcut jeans. The most startling thing about her were her eyes. Huge, brown eyes. She looked like a deer, fearful, jumpy, ready to run at the slightest sign of danger.
I couldn't quite explain it, but I felt an overwhelming sense of protectiveness then. I wanted to keep her safe.
I stopped a few feet from Dad, Brian and Zachary, not sure what to say or do to make this less awkward. Dad shifted nervously, running his hand over his bald head, his eyes flitting between Brian and me. I met Brian's gaze and forced a smile. Maybe it would have been a real one of he and Dad weren’t watching me as if I was going to collapse at their feet any moment. After several heartbeats, Brian finally gave me a small smile but he didn’t try to move closer or even hug me. And his smile wasn’t the smile I remembered from when I was little or even from four years ago. He always seemed on the brink of a frown with me.
It had been two months since I’d last seen him. He’d cut his visit during the summer short and had instead spent three weeks in Mexico with a couple of friends. His friend Zachary had been one of them. I risked a quick glance at him. He hovered behind my dad and Brian, but regarded me over their heads. He was missing the caution and worry I usually saw reflected on the faces of people around me. He smiled in response to my scrutiny and I quickly looked away. Embarrassment crawled under my skin at my inability to do something as simple as meet his eyes. The awkwardness turned up another notch and I tightened my hold on my cat in search of comfort.
“It’s good to see you again Brian,” I said eventually, then cringed at how formal that sounded. As if we were distant acquaintances and not siblings. His expression almost brought tears to my eyes. He looked hurt and disappointed. Maybe he’d hoped that I'd changed in those last couple of months, that we could finally be close again.
“Yeah, it’s good to see you too, Am,” he murmured, staring at anything but at my face.
It hurt to see him, to see his disappointment, hurt more than I thought it would. Maybe coming here had been a mistake. I could still turn around, get back into the car and ask Dad to take me back home with him. I could keep hiding, could keep hating every breath I took, could live in my tiny lonely shell of a life until it crushed me.
A feeling of dread settled in my chest, threatening to choke me. All eyes were on me, watching, waiting, worrying. I couldn’t leave now. I couldn’t do that to Brian and Dad.
“So,” Dad interrupted my thoughts and the uncomfortable silence, scratching the back of his head nervously. He’d started shaving his hair off only a few weeks ago because his bald spot had reached the size of a saucer and he hadn’t gotten used to it yet. “Maybe we should go inside.”
“Yes, right. That's a good idea,” Brian agreed eagerly. I couldn't blame him for wanting to escape the situation. My eyes returned to Zachary. What must he be thinking about us, about me, watching this? He hadn’t said anything yet but his blue eyes were attentive, taking it all in. He was even taller up close, definitely 6’3. He didn’t avoid my gaze like my father and brother did, and I felt uncomfortable under his gaze. But that wasn’t unusual. I always felt that way when people stared at me. It made me feel as if they were judging me, but Zachary seemed only curious.
Brian cleared his throat nervously, his gaze shifting between me and his best friend. “That's Zachary,” he said slowly, then he shot Zachary a badly disguised warning glance. “Zachary, that's my sister Amber.”
“Hi Amber,” Zachary said with a grin that lit up his entire face. He had a strong prominent jaw and his face was all angles and sharpness but his eyes and grin took away some of the hardness. “You can call me Zach.”
“Zach,” I confirmed in a bare whisper. He didn’t try to shake my hand or get closer. If I wasn’t mistaken, he hadn’t as much as twitched since I’d reached them. Brian had done his job. He’d probably warned all of his friends and the entire neighborhood of my impending arrival. I scanned the surrounding houses, even the windows, but nobody was trying to risk a peek at the freakshow that was me. I wasn't sure how I felt about Zach and possibly other people knowing what was wrong with me. This was supposed to be a new start, but how was that even possible if everyone knew I was broken? A brief flash of anger at Brian hit me, then it faded. It wasn’t as if Zach wouldn’t have realized that I wasn’t quite right on his own.
“I'll get your belongings,” Dad said, then hesitated. “Okay?”
Warmth spread in my cheeks. If he was worried about leaving me alone with Brian and Zach for a couple of minutes, how was I supposed to survive sharing an apartment with them?
“It’s fine, Dad.” He practically rushed toward the jeep. Zach followed after him at a much slower pace, leaving me alone with Brian. Hesitantly, I tilted my head and looked at my brother, catching him watching me with wistful eyes. I willed the corners of my lips up to wipe that look off his face.
His eyes lit up the slightest bit. “I'm glad you're here,” he said quietly. I wanted to believe him and I knew that he wouldn't deliberately lie to me, but he couldn’t possibly want me in his life, not like this. I was going to mess everything up for him, and for Zach, who was getting in the line of fire without any fault of his own.
“I'm glad, too,” I lied without hesitation. The way Brian looked at me made it clear that he knew I didn't tell the truth. Maybe I wasn’t as good a liar as I thought, or maybe I'd just done it too often. I averted my gaze, unable to bear Brian’s scrutiny, and turned toward Zach and Dad who were heading our way, carrying my two suitcases. If I couldn’t even stand Brian’s closeness for ten minutes, taking that much luggage with me might have been a bit optimistic.
Dad’s eyes found me as he and Zach passed by, for once not concerned. They were talking about college football and Brian joined in on their conversation eagerly. I didn’t mind. It made me happy to see him and Dad so animated and relaxed. It wasn’t something I saw often when they were around me.
I followed them at a safe distance, stroking Pumpkin’s soft fur all the while. It always managed to calm me. I slipped past Dad who held the door open for me, careful not to touch him. The hall of the building was narrow and dark, but at least it looked clean. The floor was dark brown wood with scratches all over it, and the bricked walls were painted in a sterile white.
“Our apartment is on the fourth floor, so we should take the elevator,” Brian said, heading for metal doors at the end of the corridor. A beeping noise announced the arrival of the elevator and a moment later the doors slid open, revealing a small space with barely enough room for six people – or four people with two suitcases. Zach, Brian and Dad stepped into the elevator without hesitation. It looked so easy: set one foot in front of the other. But my throat was closing up at the sight of the crammed space. I hadn’t used an elevator since my hospital stay three years ago. It would be close to impossible not to touch someone. I tightened my hold on Pumpkin, causing my cat to let out a noise of protest.
My feet seemed glued to the floor. Move, Amber.
. I tried to force my body to move forward, to step into the elevator but my muscles refused to bulge. Until about two seconds ago, Brian, Dad and Zach had been too absorbed in their conversation to notice my hesitation, but now their attention shifted to me. The happiness on Dad's face evaporated and an expression of sadness took its place. I caught the look of hurt on Brian's face before he averted his gaze and stared at the ground.
Zach was watching me with a deep frown; now he probably regretted having ever agreed to let me live in their apartment. And why wouldn’t he? I was a mess. I couldn’t believe I’d actually hoped this was the beginning of a new life. Tears welled up in my eyes but I forced them back. Guilt was a vice around my heart. I was a horrible person for hurting my father and brother like this. But I couldn't step into that elevator.
I hated myself for my next words. “You can go ahead without me. There’s not enough room for all of us. I'll take the next elevator.” I stared at a spot on the wall. I could imagine the pained expression on Dad's face and the despair on Brian’s; I didn’t want to actually see them.
Dad reached for the button to send the elevator up. A couple of years ago, he might have protested. The front door swung open and a few young men entered the hall and headed in my direction.
I quickly stepped into the elevator, careful not to touch Dad, Brian or Zach, who stood immediately to my right. Zach shifted a few inches to give me more room but there were still only two inches between my shoulder and his arm. Dad jabbed the button with more force than necessary. The doors closed smoothly behind me and I pressed my back against them. The sense of being trapped washed over me. I focused with all my might on the pink suitcase in front of me, but Brian’s brown leather oxfords were in my peripheral vision. No matter where I looked there were shoes or legs or hands.
I closed my eyes for an instant and buried my face in Pumpkin's soft fur, breathing in his familiar scent. The elevator began to move, too slowly.
My throat tightened, my heart pounding in my ears. The silence pressed in on me. How much longer? I couldn’t do this, couldn’t, couldn’t. I was startled out of my rising panic attack when Zach cleared his throat. My eyes peeled open and I peered up at him before settling for the safer sight of my suitcase again.
“Your room has a clear view of the small park behind the house. You'll like it. If you’re lucky, you might even get to watch squirrels scurrying after joggers for food,” he said, his face lit up by a small smile. The dimples around his mouth gave him a boyish appearance and made me forget his intimidating frame for a moment. “I bet your cat will love the squirrels.”
Pumpkin’s ears perked up as if he realized Zach was talking about him. I opened my mouth to say something when I noticed Dad and Brian watching me in worry as if they expected me to break down crying because Zach had spoken to me. My lips snapped shut. Instead of voicing my reply, I nodded and gave Zach what I hoped was a grateful look. The elevator halted; before the door had slid open completely, I squeezed through and stumbled into the hallway, sucking in a deep breath, relief surging through me at being free.
There were four wooden doors on this floor, two on either side of the elevator. Brian walked past me, startling me. I managed to suppress the gasp rising into my mouth. I held myself close to the right side to give Zach and Dad room to pass me on the left side. Zach’s shoulders brushed the wall across from me as he passed by, carrying one of my suitcases as if it weighed nothing, and headed for Brian who had stopped in front of the last door; Zach was obviously trying to give me as much space as possible. Brian had definitely schooled him well. Heat rose into my head.