Us, Again Excerpt


| M A C K E N Z I E |

Once upon a time, we were in love. 

It was a big, crazy, terrifying love, but we were too young to know we should be scared. It was the kind of love that is only possible in youth when your heart is still something whole that can be given away completely. It requires the guileless abandon of innocence, the fearless confidence of an undamaged soul.

Our love was a miracle, a secret we were certain no one had ever discovered before. He and I were bound together in the knowledge of it, in this new world where only the two of us existed.

I was fundamentally changed, as though love rearranged my atoms. He created, or perhaps merely unveiled, parts of me I’d never known about before. And with every day that passed, we became more connected, until he was a vital cog in the machinery that allowed me to draw breath into my lungs.

I felt alive for the first time. Loving him made me realize that anything I thought I’d felt before this—this uncontainable feeling bigger than me, or him, or even both of us together—was merely a droplet. And this was a torrential downpour. It was chaos, a madness we couldn’t control, and we gave ourselves over to it.

What we had was a forever kind of love. Until forever suddenly ended.

It was a big, crazy, terrifying love, and it destroyed me. It was the experience that introduced me to pain and betrayal. In the trusting naiveté of youth, I’d allowed another person to become essential to my being, to my very act of breathing, and when he was gone I suffocated.

Once upon a time, love broke me. And I will never, ever, let myself fall in love again.

01. Mariposas

| M A C K E N Z I E |

“So… you were home at 9 PM and I didn’t hear any action. Great date, huh?”

I roll my eyes at my roommate as I join her on a bench outside the Psychology building, then eagerly accept the coffee she hands over. Bless her for knowing I needed this!

“How do you know I was home at 9?” I ask. I’m stalling—I guarantee she was sitting up listening for the door, like a parent waiting for their teen to come home. Which is ridiculous, of course, since we’re both 23.

Marisa doesn’t even bother to respond, continuing to sip her own coffee. After a moment I give in and break the silence.

“For your information, I had a perfectly fine time with Jim. We already have plans to go out again.”

The Queen of Sarcasm sets down her cup so she can use both hands to clutch her chest dramatically.

“Ooh, perfectly fine. I can’t handle the passion! Wait a sec while I go change my panties.”

I swat at her with the back of one gloved hand, hissing at her to lower the volume. It hasn’t been long since my class ended—some of my Psych 101 students might hear her! She ducks away from me, giggling.

She finally calms down, face turning serious as she pins me with one of her no-nonsense looks that I swear can see right into me. Maybe it’s a special Cubana superpower.

“But, really. How long has it been? I think we need to go out this weekend and find a guy in a bar who gives you mariposas en el estomago. And then you can let him take off all your clothes.”

I roll my eyes again and drink my coffee. She can keep her mariposas, thank you very much. The stomach fluttering excitement of pure attraction is not only absent from my list of requirements for a boyfriend, I actively avoid it. You can’t trust those butterflies, they’re little traitors.

“I’m not having this conversation again, ’Ris. I’m looking for companionship and compatibility in a boyfriend, not passion. Passion is nothing but a temporary high that eats your brain cells.”

So what if I’ve only had mediocre sex in the past five years? I’ll admit things have been decidedly lackluster with the handful of guys I’ve dated since him. But I’ve long since decided that type of passion isn’t a realistic goal. I’m sure what I experienced back then was the result of surging teenage hormones, anyway. Or I’ve built it up in my head all these years, romanticizing the past so much that those memories have become exaggerated fantasies. I mean, nothing is ever really that good.

What I know for certain is that big love leads to big pain. Even now, I can’t think about him without feeling whispers of that old ache inside my chest.

No, Jim is exactly what I’m looking for in a guy. Intelligent, driven, with a solid career, a 401K, and a refined palate for a nice Pinot Noir. I’ve got him right on schedule to hit boyfriend status in approximately two weeks, at which time I will let things progress to sex. By then, we’ll have gone out at least five times, giving us time to learn each other’s lifestyle habits, family backgrounds, and five-year plans. Enough established compatibility to give a relationship a shot—and best of all, a high likelihood of a civil, amicable parting if and when we decide to end it.

“But are you happy?” Marisa asks.

“Of course I am,” I tell her with a smile that’s at least 75% genuine. “I’ve got a great life—a beautiful apartment that comes with the best friend a girl can have, a spot in an amazing grad program, an internship, and a job I love. I don’t need a man to make me happy. That’s just window dressing—I’m structurally sound and whole all by myself.”

Marisa’s face looks more pitying than persuaded, but I know she’ll drop the subject for now. We met in undergrad when the wounds were still very fresh, so she’s heard plenty of gory details about my history with love.

I shiver despite the coffee in my hand and the many layers necessary for Boston in January. I’m about to suggest we relocate to a warmer location when my eyes catch on something—someone—that makes my breath stutter and then halt. Standing across the courtyard, as though summoned by my thoughts, is a ghost. He must be a ghost because it is impossible—there is no possible way—that Graham Wyatt is in the middle of the Boston College campus right now.

“Speaking of taking all your clothes off…who is the piece of man candy giving you the smolder eyes?” Marisa asks. Her suggestive tone is completely justified, considering the sight before us.

He looks older, the five years lending an edge of darkness and solemnity to his appearance. Back when we were together, there was still some boyishness to him, but whatever the years did to him removed any trace—is now clearly all man. The scruff covering his jaw makes him look rugged and his dirty blonde hair is longer than I’ve ever seen it, and his eyes…even from this distance I can feel their intensity as they bore into me.

It’s really him. The former love of my life. The man I gave everything to, who broke me so badly the pieces never healed back together properly.

Mariposas, indeed. When I’m able to pull in another breath, they swarm my abdomen, filling every inch of my midsection with the pulsing and fluttering of their frenetic wings. It’s a sensation I haven’t felt in so long I’d forgotten the sheer power of it.

Right as all of my molecules start trying to pull me into his magnetic grip, reality suddenly slams back into place. The butterflies vacate my stomach to wreak havoc somewhere else. Because I remember.

I haven’t seen him for five years because he’s been in prison.

I remember that he killed someone.

Copyright Elle Maxwell 2019