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(Never) Again

by

Theresa Paolo

To my parents, John and Carol, for always having faith in me even when I didn’t.

Chapter 1

I’ve never been bitch slapped. Technically. But after the last few months I can imagine how it feels. If life had hands, its fingers would have imprinted on my cheek.

Two weeks into my first semester at Farmingdale State, I walked into the English building like I always did with my best friend, Sadie, on my right and my boyfriend, Joe, on my left.

Joe’s fingers interlocked with mine, and I leaned my head against his narrow shoulder. When he told me he’d be attending the same college as me I nearly tackled him. It made up for the disappointment of not making it into my dream school.

Sadie strutted beside us, black hair accented by a braided headband, falling in waves on her shoulders. Emerald chandelier earrings that her parents bought her on their last trip to India swayed with each step.

Joe released my hand as we got closer to our group of new and old friends. He needed it free for high fiving and back patting.

Nothing seemed off. The halls were filled with people, their voices no louder than usual, but as we closed in on my Principles of Writing class, I realized there was someone who didn’t belong.

At least not anymore.

He was taller, his arms bigger, his hair not as messy as I remembered, but those dark brown eyes were exactly the same. He was standing against the wall, his t-shirt hugging biceps that were nonexistent last time I saw him, and he was talking to my friends. Some of the same friends we’d shared before he left.

My stomach twisted in knots when over the din of the hallway chaos, I heard his voice. I kept my head up and tried to ignore the fact he was back, but when his head turned towards me, I panicked. Without a single word to either Sadie or Joe, I dove into the girls’ bathroom.

I stared at my reflection in the mirror, shocked to see the tears building. It had been over a year, yet as soon as my eyes settled on him, every emotion I felt a year ago flooded back into me.

“Liz?” Sadie’s voice drifted into the bathroom. Her heels clicked on the tile until she came to a stop beside me. “Oh my God! Did you know Zach was here? Of all places? When did that happen? I mean, I never thought we’d see him again.” She paused and then rested her hand on my shoulder. Her other hand brushed the blond highlights out of my face. “Liz? Are you okay?”

My grip tightened on the sink, my hazel eyes unfocused. It had taken me a long time—too long—to get over Zach, and when I’d finally moved on, he showed up at my college, instantly transporting me back to our junior year of high school. I tried to fight the memories from flooding my mind, but it was no use. I was already back to that day on the football field.

I had wondered why I couldn’t be like every other girl drooling over the quarterback. No, my eyes drifted to the boy at his side, the one who handed him the microphone. There was something about him. His curly mess of brown hair, his lanky frame and his size-too-big clothes made quarterback Smith Johnson completely invisible to me.

“Hello?” Sadie snapped her fingers in front of my face, bringing me back to the English building’s girls’ bathroom. “Welcome back. You had me nervous for a second there. I was about to throw water in your face, but I didn’t know if you had on waterproof mascara.”

Prime example of why this girl was my best friend.

“Do you think he saw me?”

“I don’t know. You dove in here so fast, I’d be surprised if he did.”

I nodded, unable to do anything else. The last thing I expected was to see Zach again. For months I had waited to hear his voice or see his face, but I’d finally accepted the fact that he’d probably met someone else and moved on. It had been over a year since he’d left. The summer before senior year of high school was the last time I’d seen Zach in person.

“So, are you going to ask him?”

“Ask him what?” I had nothing to say to him and I sure as hell did not want to see his stupid face.

“Why he stopped calling?”

I flashed my death stare.

“What? You have the right to know why he didn’t have the decency to break up with you.”

I flashed the same look but with a little more intensity. She raised her hands in front of me in surrender, bangles sliding down her wrists. “I’m just saying. It wouldn’t have killed him to pick up the damn phone.”

“Can we just not talk about this?” I turned back to the mirror and massaged my temples, hoping to rid my mind of all things Zach.

Sadie planted her hands firmly on her hips. “Fine, but if you don’t ask him, I will.”

“No!” My hands fell from my head, and I met her gray eyes in the mirror. “Sadie, no, please.”

The gray of her eyes disappeared as they rolled behind her eyelids. She crossed her arms and shook her head. “I watched you cry over him for an entire summer.”

It had been the longest summer of my life, and she’d never left my side. She had even convinced her parents to let her stay with me while they went to India for their yearly visit. She gave up time with her Dida and Dadu for me.

“I know.”

Her head started to do that bobble thing it did. “You can’t mess with my best friend and expect me to let it go.”

“Please, Sadie? I’m over it. I’m with Joe now. Zach means nothing to me.”

Sadie’s eyes settled on mine. “Are you sure? You can finally get the closure you always wanted.”

She was right. I had never gotten closure. Zach and I never officially broke up. I hated life. I was so mad about everything. His dad’s job for taking him away back when we didn’t have a say in where we lived. Him for not calling. My brother who I found out still emailed him about video games.

Everything.

A hard lump formed in my throat, but I pushed the words around it. “I don’t need it anymore.”

She gave me the look, the one that said I don’t believe you, but I’ll pretend until I can corner you at our apartment. “You good then?”

I nodded. “I’m good.”

At least I thought I was. It had taken a long time to forget about Zach, but the day had eventually come. Now, just as I thought my life was on a one-way track to happiness, a fork formed in the road, and I found myself hiding in the bathroom like a coward.

Chapter 2

At some point between hyperventilating and doing my shake-off dance, I got myself together. But I still needed a pep talk with my reflection and Sadie to drag me out of the bathroom.

When I took my seat in class I checked my cell phone.

Joe: Babe where’d you go?

Me: Sorry. Saw Prof Mulligan, had to ask a question. Committee stuff. Thought I said

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