What Comes After

What Comes After by Caryn Pine on Voyage YA

Content warning: Domestic abuse

.

Sometimes I forget what it feels like to exist. To breathe.

To

actually

be

alive.

Him. There’s a start to all of this, a middle, an ending, and then a new beginning, and every bit of it has his face, his eyes, his voice, his hands surrounding it, surrounding me. And I hate him, love him, don’t know how to really feel about him, but it’s him him him in all of me. It’s been so long, and every single thing comes back to him. I always come back to him, like we’re connected forever because I got so attached to who he should have been that I couldn’t see myself getting destroyed by who he was.

There once was a girl, a scared freshman with frizzy hair new to the high school. New to the town. She saw a confident junior with dazzling eyes and a smile that never seemed to take a break, and she was immediately smitten. She believed every single cliché when she looked at him. And miraculously, he noticed her too. She stopped hiding, started wearing her hair up, started wearing clothes that showed more of her body than her old, baggy sweatshirt, and the looks he gave her only grew more intense, and smitten wasn’t a word she could use anymore. She was head over heels, foolishly in love with the boy that didn’t even know her name.

On their first date, he wasn’t a gentleman, but she didn’t know he was supposed to be. He kissed her too hard, moved his hands in places they weren’t supposed to be, and she let him because she saw the hunger in his eyes and she took that for love. When she came home right as her curfew was ending, bra in her bag, she knew she needed to see him again, needed to see the animal his eyes, needed to matter to someone, needed to matter to him.

They continued to date. Years of hunger left her starving for more, and every time she saw him, he gave her what she needed. When she was a senior, she was convinced one day they would be married. That it would be easier.

That maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t get so angry with her, wouldn’t get so jealous.

She didn’t see the emptiness growing in her chest, taking over her entire body, and she didn’t see the hate that consumed him, turning away from the anger that manifested into dark bruises on her skin.

Maybe she knew it, but refused to look at it directly, refused to make it real. It still resembled love if she squinted her eyes. Until one day he made sure she couldn’t

look

away.

#

Why didn’t you leave? they always ask.

I did.

Why didn’t you leave sooner?

He was all I had. Without him, I would have been dead, and I was convinced that our love was better than dying on the street or some abandoned house where no one would find me.

Naïve.

But it’s okay. I left months ago, and slowly I’m finding out how to be okay, or something close enough that I know how to function. I still keep him in my life, but at a safe distance.

I’ve been watching him. That sounds creepy, doesn’t it? Girl that got hurt can’t live without the one who did the hurting, so she sees what he’s been doing since their nasty little breakup. He doesn’t even notice me anymore, isn’t wrapped up in me like I’ve been with him. He’s not haunted by the thought of me.

He has a new girlfriend, actually. I don’t know her name. Don’t want to, but Lucas has a new girlfriend and she’s not me, but what if she’s like me, doesn’t have people that care, doesn’t have people that will notice, that will ask about the bruises, will continue loving him because he’s all that she has? What if what if what if.

So now I need to watch, to know what he’s doing, what’s happening to her. I keep my distance, but I make sure my eyes are on him every day. Not all the time, though. Not when my mind screams at me to stop, to focus on anything that isn’t him, anything that will make me feel real again, on anything that will remind me of who I once was.

And still, the question plagues me: Why not just go to the cops if you think he’s hurting her?

I am the only proof of his wrongdoings, and it’s been months. It will never be good enough. I will never be good enough. Was never good enough.

Why not tell her what he did to you?

People believe what they want to believe, and she will believe the person she loves, the person incapable of loving her back.

Really though, it’s good he doesn’t notice me. He isn’t looking for demons from his past, so he wouldn’t even expect to see me. And he’s here, in front of me. Buying coffee. He didn’t drink coffee last year, but now, a large. Extra cream.

Stop going to that stupid coffee shop. You’re wasting all of my money.

If the boy I knew could see this Lucas, would he recognize himself? Would I love this boy as much as I loved the old Lucas? Would I have fallen for large, extra cream? Would I have been pulled in by the look in his eyes, making sure I knew I was the only person who existed to him? Would he have still looked at me like that, this new boy? Would I want him to?

I push myself against the wall, making sure he doesn’t see me as he turns. And there it is. The face I fell in love with. Easygoing brown eyes. Hair that actually bounces when he turns his head, but not too much. A hunger is inside of him, and I loved seeing that face, even when it barely showed up at the end. Whenever he looked like this, it gave me something to hold on to, and I loved him so much and I hate that there’s a small part of me that still does. It doesn’t matter if parts of his life are different. If I met him now, I would fall just as hard as I did back then. He would be the person I wanted to find me. The person to make me matter.

There was a girl, a scared freshman with frizzy hair…

#

He holds her hand when they walk down the street. This is not the Lucas I knew. Intimate in private, wouldn’t even touch me in public unless he thought someone was staring at me. Arm wrapped around me, showing me off as his and no one else’s.

Cold in public. Terrifying in private.

I didn’t know which Lucas I would get, but it wasn’t this boy. This boy who holds his girlfriend’s hand, who doesn’t immediately try to move his hand lower and lower when he thinks no one is looking. He doesn’t talk to her like she’s stupid; talks like she’s actually worth something.

I wonder what that’s like.

Why did you stay if he treated you like that?

I was nothing, but he was everything in the world. He looked at me like I mattered, and that wasn’t something I was used to.

Our first date, I came home, hair disheveled, makeup smeared. That should have raised some kind of alarm, right? I was just fourteen. My parents were both awake, watching TV in the living room, and when I walked into the room, they both looked at me. I stared at them, clearly caught not being fourteen, waiting to get yelled at, but instead, they went back to their house flipper show, and I went into the bathroom to clean myself up.

I was unrecognizable. My eyeliner was too thick, a crying raccoon, not a girl that let Lucas Kirkman get anything he wanted because she was already in love. I looked both older and younger, naïve and knowing everything.

I saw him the next night, less makeup, but same scenario. But—and there’s always a but with Lucas—he looked at me, truly looked at me, and I was unstoppable. He looked at me with those brown eyes that shined brighter than they had any reason to, and he told me something I’d never heard before.

Emery, you look amazing tonight. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.

He owned my heart from that moment on.

Now this girl is walking with the boy that I gave everything to, heart and soul, and she looks happy, happier than I did in the last year of our relationship. Tank top and shorts. No bruises. When she looks at him, there’s love shimmering in her eyes, swimming in her smile. I don’t know her, but I’ve been her. I’m close enough to hear him, and still he doesn’t even notice me, but I hear him.

I’ve never felt this way about anyone before, Rachel. I love you.

Every bit of me is ripped apart with each word.

She looks away, a small smile under blushing cheeks. He knew what he was doing then, and he knows now. This girl will give everything to him, and he will gladly take it, sucking away everything from her, but he’ll still want more, and she’ll never be able to give it to him. He’ll come out on top, and she will be insignificant when he finds a new girl to say these words to.

I was so sure he loved me, but it’s only been a few months, not even a full year, and he’s found someone else and he’s going to love her until he’s sick of her, beat her until there’s nothing left to hit. He still owns my heart, and he’s already getting someone else’s.

I’m not doing it because he picked someone over me. I’m doing it because I was convinced he loved me and he took that knowledge away in the worst possible way, and I can’t see it happen to anyone else. Not to her. Not to anybody who would be willing to give themselves to someone like Lucas Kirkman.

#

She doesn’t live with him, so maybe she isn’t as attached as he wants. She doesn’t even spend the night. Not like I did every night my senior year. My parents didn’t even question where I was. It was one less mouth to feed, and Lucas loved it since he knew where I was. Always with him. My heart in a cage next to his bed.

When he closes his door, I don’t even bother knocking, just come in. He doesn’t notice. He walks to the fridge, a cocky saunter I used to love, but now makes me want to vomit. The cockiness burned me way too many times to think it’s cute anymore. He thinks he’s won again, but Rachel is going to be the only winner, never knowing the kind of person he is.

I knock over a stack of books on the counter. They look like they’ve been here for months, untouched. They probably were. College classes he never actually studied for but managed to pass. Same story, different books, now on the floor. He turns around, a curse on his tongue, but he stops when he sees me.

“Emery?” I’ve become used to a calm voice but he’s shaking. Not just his voice, but all of him.

I’m not the terrified girl he once knew. After watching him for months, I’ve stopped being scared by the sight of him, even if there’s some part of me that wants to love him still. It doesn’t matter. My love or any form of it does not matter anymore. All that matters is what’s in this room: me and him and years of hurt.

“Hi Lucas,” I say, trying to keep my voice like it used to be. Sweet, nurturing, making sure I kept him happy. Any trick I could use to avoid the anger and hatred.

“Is it really you?” The blood is leaving his face, draining him of any color he had.

“Yeah.” I don’t know what else to say to him. I didn’t prepare this part.

“But, I saw you. You were dead.” He hasn’t moved yet, feet glued to the floor.

“You killed me,” I spit back.

“I didn’t mean to,” he says, voice cracking.

“You didn’t mean to?”

“Of course not. I loved you.”

“So you just hid my body in some construction site, so I could have my lungs fill with concrete because you loved me? You hid me since you knew no one would look for me. Did you mean to do that?” Months of bitterness fall out of my mouth.

I once loved Lucas, but now I hate him more.

#

“Where were you, Emery?”The rage was deep in his voice, almost a growl. I looked at my phone. Half an hour later than I usually was. I messed up, and I was going to pay for it.

“I’m sorry,”I pleaded. “I had to work on a project and the time got away from us.”

I should have lied. I shouldn’t have included anyone else. If it was just me, I might have cushioned the incoming pain. But I didn’t. I told him the truth, afraid he would read through me if I didn’t. There was no winning.

“Us? Who was it with?”Rage made the walls shake.

“Travis. It was for my history class. We have to do a presentation on—”

“Do you think I care what it was about? You were with some guy doing who knows what.”

“I told you, it was a presentation.”

Once upon a time, the jealousy was flattering. At least he cared enough to be jealous.

“I’ve seen how guys look at you, Emery. You weren’t doing a presentation. I know how easy it is to get with you. One nice word and you’ll take off your pants for whoever said it.”

“Why won’t you believe me? Why can’t you listen to what I’m saying for once?”

I regretted it before the words even left my mouth, but I wanted him to see I was telling the truth. It only made him angrier. Those words

destroyed

everything.

His hands were on my throat, pushing me against the wall. He was always stronger than me, thought he always would be, and in that moment, I tried to break away, but he was collapsing my lungs, making the world spin, black dots covering my eyes until there was nothing.

When I woke up he was over me still, but he wasn’t angry anymore. His eyes weren’t brilliant, but terrified, darting between me and the door like he was a trapped animal. He sighed quietly before picking me up, but I didn’t move with him. My body did

and I was watching him go.

And then I realized. That I didn’t pass out. That the boy I loved was capable of killing me. He went into his room, our room, and wrapped me in his blanket, then left me there for hours, until it was dark, until he felt like we were safe from any eyes. He got to the construction site across town, where there was a hole ready, almost like it was waiting. For me. He dug a little deeper and threw me in, burying me until there was no evidence that either one of us was there.

The next day they poured the concrete, and no matter what I tried to do, nobody realized there was anything wrong. I wasn’t used to being dead, because how can you ever truly get used to it? I couldn’t feel anything, but my heart and head felt everything that he had done to me. It didn’t matter. There was nothing solid about me.  I had no voice. I was trapped.

#

And my body is still there, will probably always be there.

For months I tried to figure out how to get someone to find me, but that possibility ended. The construction is done, and while now more solid in my role, I’ve stopped caring about being seen by everyone else. I just need Lucas. I can disappear if he’s gone too, and now he’s in front of me, terrified in his own home. Like I was for years.

“Emery, I loved you,” he pleads. He looks like a scared little boy, the one who realizes there really is a monster under his bed.

I’m not the girl he hurt. I’ve changed. For months, I was invisible, trying to find out who I was, but now I’m solid. I am stronger than he ever thought he was.

“I loved you,” he tries again. He looks like I did every time he touched me with his anger. Terrified. Broken.

“I was eighteen. Do you understand that? I was eighteen and you took everything from me.”

I’m next to him instantly. My hand on his throat. He tries to push me away, but I am more than him. More powerful. More horrifying. More rage than person.

“Emery, please.” Tears are in his eyes, but I don’t care. I squeeze harder and use my other hand to push on his chest. He struggles and shakes, experiencing the fear I did. The fear of knowing that someone who once loved you is going to end you. I push until there’s nothing left. No terror. No anger. Nothing. There is a body, and there is me, and there is a girl far away from this apartment who will live in ignorance.

Why didn’t you leave?

I did. I left the only way he would let me. But Lucas Kirkman left the same exact way.

Terrified and alone.

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