"I don't like salad or eye contact."
Riley leaned her elbows on the picnic table and smirked. My stomach twisted, and not in a nice way. Seeing her smile so blissfully only made me feel guilty for breaking down on her the other day. "You wanna know a secret?" she whispered conspiratorially. "Puppies actually kind of scare me."
"I find macaroni and cheese oddly poetic."
"Have you talked to your therapist about that? Because that's beyond weird. That's absurd."
I sighed. "I thought this was supposed to be an exercise in me trusting people. Other than Colt."
"Does Colt know about your fixation on macaroni and cheese?" She took my hand. "Has he told you how weird it is?"
"Ok. Still stuck on that. Fine." I leaned away, crossing my arms. "Would you like to know about my relationships with other foods or is it just the fact that's mac and cheese that bothers you?" I knew it was a bad idea to agree to this. But she'd asked so nicely and Colt's eyes dragged so deep. And I was so tired.
I needed someone else to talk to you. Besides myself.
A heavy summer breeze brushed by the two of us, fluttering my shirt and Riley's hair. The leaning willow sheltered us from the sun, but the thick June heat wrapped me in a tight grip and wouldn't let me escape. Not even inside. Which was where I wanted to be right then.
Ri watched me through narrowed eyes, like a cat plotting world domination. Which, I was learning, was her default mode. "What do you want to talk about then?" She rubbed her fingers absent-mindedly up and down her bare arm. "Global warming, politics, Colt's obsession with Japanese cartoons?"
I closed my eyes. "Anything that doesn't hurt."
She paused. "So not the brother."
The word shot out of me like a bullet. My stomach lurched again. Anything but that.
"Okay." She bit her bottom lip. Her nose crinkled, and for half a second, she looked like a rabbit from one of Colt's stupid cartoons. "Tell me...about how you got that scar on your chin."
My hand flew to my chin, which was rough with the stubble I forgot to shave that morning. I frowned. "What scar?"
"Here." She tapped the side of my jaw, and I flinched. "You don't remember getting it?"
"No." I looked down at my hands, picking at the scab on my knuckle. "Is it that a bad thing?"
She thought it was a bad thing. Because she clearly thought I was faking.
This meeting was such a bad idea.
"Listen." I grabbed my bag and stood, knocking my knee against the table as I did. "I've gotta go. The General needs me...for something." I bit back a curse, both at the sharp pain and my idiocy.
She raised her dark, out of place eyebrows. "Something? Like what, walking his alligator?"
I swallowed. "Maybe?" It wouldn't be the first time, but she didn't need to know that.
"Or maybe you're avoiding this talk." This time she was the one leaning back and crossing her arms.
"No." I bit my lip. I didn't want this, but I didn't want her angry at me. I didn't like life when Riley was mad at me. "I...I just don't know how to talk."
She blinked rapidly. "Is this not talking?"
"This is playful banter. This is goofing off. None of it is serious." I rubbed my forehead and groaned. "I don't know how to talk."
"Are there italics or something to help me understand the context because I'm not really getting it." I wished her sass wasn't so easy to play off. I wished she could just listen for once.
Then I realized that she needed this just as much as I did.
To Ri, life was a constant front. She kept her mouth running to keep the illusion alive. If she kept talking, she could convince herself that everything was fine.
And everything wasn't.
"I don't know how to tell people I love them. I can't look people in the eyes--unless it's Colt." Or Shi. Or you. "I get angry but for the wrong reasons. I can talk about how much I love macaroni and cheese but I can't even tell my therapist I can barely eat these days. It's like there's a tap on my emotions or words or something and it keeps me from being normal. Is it the root of everything? I don't know. I just know it's not right." I took a deep breath. "It scares me. And...and I want to learn. To talk. To actually talk."
My words finally dried up. Red heat crept up my neck to my cheeks and ears, and I looked away from the girl at the table. Coward Matt wanted to run. Robot Matt wanted to laugh it all off and tell her I was just pulling her leg.
This version of Matt didn't have a clue what he was supposed to do next.
At last, she stood up, forcing her way into my line of vision. No smile curved her face. There wasn't even a spark of humor in her eyes.
I'd never seen her like this.
"Matt?" She took my hand, her fingers oddly cool against mine. I was definitely favouring Coward Matt's plan of attack now. "I think you just did it."
Only because I was tired of talking to walls and losing myself again and again. Only because I was so desperate the words flooded out. "But what do I do now?" Where did I go from here?
She shrugged. "I don't know." Then she squeezed my hand slightly. "But I think we'll figure it out."
She didn't understand. She didn't want to listen. She couldn't hear the urgency in my voice, the fact that I was running out of time, because she didn't want to face it.
But maybe she was right. Maybe we would figure it out in time and everything could go back to normal and I'd be a normal person again.