I TRIED TO OPEN MY EYES. THEY WERE WET AND swollen, and the dark blue-black world rocked around me. I could see only pieces of it. Somehow, I was very warm, but my body was curled up.
“Mara?” Noah asked. I was inches away from his face. My head rested on his shoulder in the crook between his neck and his ear. He was carrying me. Not inside the asylum. Or the Convention Center.
“Noah,” I whispered.
He folded me into the passenger seat and brushed a few strands of hair out of my face as he leaned over me. His hand lingered.
“What happened?” I asked, even though I knew. I passed out. I had a flashback. And now I was shaking.
“You fainted during my grand gesture.” His voice was light, but he was obviously rattled.
“Low blood sugar,” I lied.
Busted. I leaned back against the passenger seat. “Sorry,” I whispered. And I was. I couldn’t even go on a date without crumbling into pieces. I felt like a tool.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. Nothing.”
I smiled, but it was hollow. “Admit it. That was weird.”
Noah said nothing.
“I can explain,” I said, as the fog in my brain receded. I could explain. I owed him that.
“There’s no need,” he said quietly.
I barked out a laugh. “Thanks, but I’d rather you didn’t think that’s my typical reaction to art shows.”
“I don’t think that.”
I sighed. “Then what do you think?” I asked, eyes closed.
“I don’t think anything,” he said. His voice was even.
It didn’t make sense that Noah was so nonchalant about my little episode. I opened my eyes to look at him. “You’re not at all curious?” It was slightly suspicious.
“No.” Noah stared straight ahead, still standing outside the car.
Not slightly suspicious. Very suspicious. “Why not?” My pulse raced as I awaited his answer. I had no idea what Noah was going to say.
“Because I think I know,” he said, and looked down at me. “Daniel.”
I rubbed my forehead, not sure I heard him correctly. “What? What does he have to do with—”
“Daniel told me.”
“Told you what? You just met—”
I’d been set up.
Which was why Noah never once asked about my old school. My old friends. Not a single question about the move, even though he was relatively new to Miami, too. He hadn’t even asked about my arm. Now I understood why; Daniel told him everything. My brother would not hurt me on purpose, but this wouldn’t be the first time he’d acted like Mom’s little henchman. Maybe he thought I needed a new friend and he didn’t think I’d make one on my own. Self-righteous ass.
Noah closed my passenger door and climbed into the driver’s seat, but didn’t start the car. Neither of us said anything for a long time.
When I found my voice again, I asked, “How much do you know?”
“What kind of answer is that?”
Noah closed his eyes, and for a split second, I felt guilty. I looked out the window at the inky sky instead of at his face. Noah lied to me. He should feel guilty.
“I know about—about your friends. I’m sorry.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I asked quietly. “Why lie?”
“I suppose I thought you’d mention it when you were ready.”
Against my better judgment, I looked at him. Noah’s legs were stretched out languidly in front of him. He cracked his knuckles, completely unfazed. Unmoved. I wondered why he’d bothered with any of this.
“What did Daniel bribe you with to get you to take me out?”
Noah turned to me, incredulous. “Are you insane?”
I had no good answer to that question.
“Mara, I asked Daniel,” Noah said.
I blinked. “What?”
“I asked him. About you. When you swore at me after English. I remembered you from—I found out you had a brother and talked to him and—”
I cut him off. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but you don’t have to cover for Daniel.”
Noah’s expression hardened. The streetlight above us cast the shadow of his eyelashes on his cheeks. “I’m not covering for him. You wouldn’t talk to me and I didn’t know—” Noah stopped, and fixed his gaze on me. “I didn’t know what to do, all right? I had to know you.”
Before my lips could even form the word “why,” Noah rushed on. “When we were in the bathroom that day, do you remember?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “When we were there, I thought I had you.” A sly smile appeared for a fraction of a second. “But then you said you’d heard—things—about me, and those girls walked in. I didn’t want them talking shit about you. It was your first week, for Christ’s sake. You shouldn’t have had to deal with it, especially when no one knew you.”
I was speechless.
“And then I saw you in South Beach. In that dress. And I just decided, fuck it, I’m a selfish bastard, who cares. Katie teased me for brooding that whole week, and I told her there that you were the reason. And then you just … ran out. So, no. I’m not covering for Daniel. I don’t know what I am doing, but it’s not that.” He stared straight ahead into the dark.
The bathroom. The club. I was wrong about everything.
Or … was I? It, this, could just be another play. It was so hard to know what was real.
He leaned his head back against the headrest, his dark tousled hair twisted every which way. “So, I seem to be an idiot.”
He grinned crookedly, his eyes closed.
“But hey, it could be worse. You could be broken, like me.” I hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
“You’re not broken,” Noah said firmly.
Something inside of me began to tear. “You don’t know that.” I told myself to stop it—to shut up. It didn’t work. “You don’t know me. You only know what Daniel told you, and I don’t let him see. There’s something wrong with me.” My voice cracked as my throat closed, drum tight with a sob that wanted to escape. Damn it.
“You’ve been through—”
And I lost it. “You don’t know what I’ve been through,” I said as two hot tears escaped. “Daniel doesn’t know. If he did, he’d report to it our mother and I’d end up in a mental hospital. So please, please don’t argue with me when I tell you that there is something seriously wrong with me.” The words poured out, but once spoken, I felt the truth of them. I could take drugs, do therapy, whatever. But I knew enough to know that psychotics can’t be cured, only managed. And the hopelessness of it was suddenly too much to take. “There’s nothing anyone can do to fix it,” I said quietly. Finally.
But then Noah turned to me. His face was uncharacteristically open and honest but his eyes were defiant as they held mine. My pulse raced without my permission.
“Let me try.”