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Read the first story and see if you can guess the secret...
STORY 1: BEYOND REPAIR
“I DON’T CARE. I’m staying.”
Tyler eyed his girlfriend, seeing all the telltale signs that she wasn’t about to budge: her chin in the air, her pursed lips, her arms crossed over her chest.
Nope, Tyler knew she’d made up her mind. Ordinarily, he’d let her get her way. Perhaps that’s why she always behaved this way: because she could. She knew he’d cave.
But not tonight.
The only reason he’d agreed to come to the club at all tonight—after yes, she’d gotten her way yet again—was because she’d promised him they’d leave by midnight. It was now nearly one.
He ignored her pouty lips, shaking his head. “Well, I’m leaving, Celeste. You can come, or you can stay, but I’m going. You know I have to work tomorrow.”
She hesitated, a look of uncertainty on her face. Tyler knew she was waiting for him to relent.
“Last chance,” he told her, voice firm.
She tilted her chin higher. If that’s the way you want to play it, he thought. But tonight you won’t change my mind. Despite his conviction, Tyler hesitated for just a moment; he didn’t like leaving her alone. But he couldn’t let her win again. He pulled out his wallet, and a grin tugged on Celeste’s lips. “I’ll have another Cosmopolitan, thank you,” she cooed.
He snorted. “Here’s some money for a cab. Make sure you stay out front where there’re people. I don’t want you going anywhere alone. Or with strangers.”
Her eyes were wide, shock and disbelief coloring her features. “But…”
“Send me a message when you get home. Remember, get the cab straight out front.” He kissed her on the cheek and turned to leave, his stomach knotting. He really did hate leaving her. He probably wouldn’t sleep anyway, not until he knew she was home safe. But she had to be reasonable, and she had to learn to keep to her word. He’d indulged her far too often. Still, the look of dismay on her face nearly made him turn around, but he pushed himself forward. He sauntered towards the exit, just in case she changed her mind, giving her ample time to catch up. He paused near the doorway. Another minute passed, then two. He shook his head. She’d never come after him. She was as stubborn as a day was long.
Mustering his resolve, he stepped out into the night and made the long walk back to the darkened side street where his car was parked. He prayed she listened to him and stayed near the club, which was well lit and bustling with partygoers. The surrounding streets, by contrast, were poorly lit and almost deserted at this time of night. To make matters worse, the one streetlight where he’d parked had been smashed and he could barely find his car.
An hour later, Tyler pulled into his garage, shaking.
He went inside and took a shower, trying to wash his fears away. He checked his phone when he came out, hoping Celeste had finally gotten home. Finding no messages, he tried her cell. No answer. Either she couldn’t hear it over the noise in the club, or she was deliberately ignoring him and being petty. He didn’t have the patience for her games tonight, he was already anxious enough as it was. He didn’t just need to know she was safe; he desperately wanted to talk to her, to hear her voice. He needed her. He kept trying every ten minutes, until he lost track of the time. Finally, after what seemed like the hundredth time he tried to reach her, she picked up.
“Oh God, Celeste, I was worried! Are you home? I’m coming over.”
There was a muffled sound on the other end. He listened closely to make it out over all of the background noise that muted her voice. Sobs.
Why was Celeste crying?
Oh God. She’s hurt, he thought. Oh God. He wanted to be sick. This night had turned out nothing like it was supposed to and he cursed himself for agreeing to go, but cursed himself more for leaving Celeste when he shouldn’t have. If he hadn’t left then, everything would still be okay…
He shifted the phone in his clammy hand, tightening his grip. “Celeste, honey, where are you? Tell me where you are and I’ll come and get you.”
He caught half a word before wrenching sobs drowned the rest out. He couldn’t take it, couldn’t take anything more. He jumped off the bed, racing down the stairs. “Celeste, tell me where you are. Everything will be all right as soon as you tell me where you are,” he soothed. He wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince her or himself. Frankly, he doubted either of them believed it. But he had to be strong for her.
Finally, the sobbing eased a moment, just long enough to mutter the words. Words that he wished he never heard. Words that would haunt him forever.
“Tyler, I’m at the hospital, and…and…something terrible’s happened. Celeste…she’s…no longer with us. She…she was killed.”
His blood ran cold. He recognized her mother’s broken voice. He wanted to hang up the phone. Start again. It couldn’t be right. It wasn’t true. Maybe if he hung up now, before she could say anything else, Celeste would call.
His fingers inched towards the disconnect button. But he stayed on the line, silent. She was injured, that was all. He’d never forgive himself. But the doctors would see how stubborn she was and she’d surprise them all. He knew her. She’d fight. She’d be the one percent who made it.
“Are you there, Tyler? It’s…a shock. I can’t understand it, can’t understand it at all. My baby…my baby…” Her mother’s voice trailed off as she launched into another round of uncontrollable sobbing.
“I’m…I’m on my way, Mrs. Ameer.” He hung up the phone, sliding on his shoes and grabbing the keys to his motorbike. It would be faster than the car, which he didn’t want to use right now.
He flew into the hospital, running towards Mrs. Ameer as soon as he spotted her. “How is she? Has she shown any sign of improvement?” he beseeched her.
She shook her head, wiping her reddened eyes. “No, Tyler, I told you. Celeste…” This time, she couldn’t seem to make herself say the words, which was fine with Tyler because he couldn’t bear to hear them.
Celeste’s mother put her arms around Tyler, both of them seeking comfort. Mrs. Ameer knew how much Tyler loved her daughter and she needed to be with someone who understood the depths of her despair, the depth of what they’d lost. Her shining light.
Finally, she pulled away. “I don’t understand, Tyler. I thought you were with her.”
His face contorted in pain. That’s where he was supposed to be. With her. None of this night would have happened if only he hadn’t left when he did. If only he hadn’t left her alone. He would never forgive himself. Never. And now he had to tell her mother that he’d abandoned her. She would probably hit him. He wished she would.
“It’s my fault, Mrs. Ameer. Celeste wanted to stay, so I gave her money for a cab and went home. I told her to stay outside the club. But—but it was my fault. I left her.” Tyler suppressed the rising sob in his throat to verbalize the remainder of his confession, his voice cracking. “I should never have left. My fault. All my fault.” He buried his head in his hands, desperately wanting the ground to swallow him up.
He waited for Mrs. Ameer to start shouting at him. To call him the bastard that he was. To hit him. To tell him his life wasn’t worth living, that it should have been him instead of Celeste. He waited to hear these things that he knew in his heart were true.
But the words didn’t come. Instead, minutes passed in silence, each of them buried under the crushing weight of unbearable loss.
His chest tightened. He needed to know. Needed to know who did this to her. The animal that could possibly extinguish such a beautiful light in the world. That could possibly harm Celeste. His Celeste. The shock that had previously numbed his senses transmuted into rage. Someone had done this to Celeste; someone had hurt her! He would find them; he would kill them! Someone hurt his beautiful girl. He couldn’t bear to think of how she’d suffered…but he had to know. He had to.
He pulled his hands away and looked at Celeste's mother. Her bloodshot eyes were a mirror of shock, anger, blame. But for the briefest of moments, he thought he also saw pity.
“How, Mrs. Ameer?” He choked out the words, swallowing down the bile that rose in his throat. “Who…did this to her?”
She took a shaky breath, readying herself. “Hit and run.” Her shoulders heaved, her breathing ragged. “Someone…someone left her by the side of the road like an animal. My baby, left to die like an animal.” Her control shattered and Mrs. Ameer collapsed into the chair behind her, able to say no more.
Tyler’s face turned to stone. No…it was impossible.
Celeste’s cousin, who had been standing behind Mrs. Ameer, picked up where she had left off, touching Tyler’s arm. “They said there was an anonymous call about twenty minutes after it happened. The police suspect it was the driver. The ambulance rushed there, but they said it was too late. She died en route to the hospital.”
The air rushed out of Tyler’s lungs. He opened his mouth, but no voice came out. Celeste’s cousin seemed to understand the question on his lips, obviously having asked the same thing. “It was so dark, no one found her until the ambulance got there. They said if they’d gotten there earlier…maybe there would’ve been a chance.”
Tyler turned around and threw up in the bin along the wall. Then he sank down beside it, promptly heaving again and again, until there was nothing left.
Somewhere on the peripheral of the prison of misery he was locked inside, he registered that Celeste’s brother had arrived. He heard Mrs. Ameer once again break down and ask who could have left her daughter to die like a dog in the middle of the street.
Tyler stood on trembling legs and faced them, wanting to answer the question.
“A monster. An animal. Someone who doesn’t deserve to live, who should die for what they did. A coward. The lowest form of scum there is. That’s who killed Celeste, the lowest form of useless scum who deserves to die. And rot in hell.”
Mrs. Ameer nodded, just as the doctor came to take her to see her daughter. She extended her hand to him, a silent invitation for him to join her.
He shook his head. “No, Mrs. Ameer, you need to have time with your daughter now.” She gave an almost imperceptible nod and then her son took her hand and led her down the corridor.
Tyler spun on his heel and left, a newfound determination giving him the strength to carry himself. He knew what he had to do now. He’d meant what he’d said. The person responsible had to die.
He hopped onto his motorcycle, deciding to head home first and get his car. He walked into his bedroom to get a photo of Celeste, softly running his thumb over her face before tucking it safely inside his pocket. Then he marched down the stairs, completely assured of his actions now. He grabbed a bottle of bourbon from the cabinet, and tucked it under his arm, pausing only long enough to scribble two words on a piece of paper: I’m sorry.
He stepped into the garage, opening the car door and ignoring the broken tail light. He unscrewed the cap and gulped down half the bottle, before tossing it onto the passenger seat. He turned the key and the engine roared to life, reminding him that Celeste’s life was cut too short. Soon, Celeste. Soon we’ll be together.
He drove recklessly up the narrow road leading to the top of the rock face, reaching over and unscrewing the bottle cap with one hand. The brown liquid burned his throat and dribbled down his chin. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and tossed the empty bottle onto the floor.
He stopped when he reached the top, overlooking the ocean.
His foot lingered on the gas petal, ready to accelerate. He closed his eyes briefly, whispering, “Please forgive me, Celeste,” before he threw the car into gear. As his foot inched downward, he heard a whisper that made him hit the brake and snap his eyes open, desperately looking for the source.
No, it couldn’t be. She’s gone.
He made a vow to the voice he thought he’d heard in his head. I’m coming, Celeste. And I’ll never leave you again.
Louder this time, he heard it. “No, Tyler!”
Again, his eyes darted frantically around him.
“Yes, I’m here.”
He eyed the empty bottle on the floor.
“You’re not dreaming. I’m here.”
“It’s impossible,” he murmured, his voice beginning to slur.
“And yet, I’m here. Besides, you know I like a challenge.”
His mind was playing awful tricks on him. It sounded exactly like something his Celeste would say.
“I won’t allow you to do it, Tyler. It’s not your time.”
This time he imagined her stomping her foot, lifting her chin, and crossing her arms over her chest. He almost smiled. Almost.
“I have to, Celeste.” God, now he was talking back to it; how drunk was he? “You know why.” His chest heaved. “I’m so sorry, baby. I didn’t know. I didn’t know it was you.”
He flashed back to the club, rubbing his eyes like he could erase the sight of it. But it was forever embedded in his mind. There was no erasing it. Ever.
“I know. I surprised you—like I wanted to. I guess I didn’t really think that through too well.”
He clawed at his head, hopelessly trying to prevent the images replaying in his mind, haunting him, just like the voice.
“I didn’t see you! I didn’t see anything. It was a one-way street and I was too lazy to go around the block. I checked the mirror for any headlights and then I backed up without another moment’s thought.”
“I shouldn’t have been in the middle of the road. I was trying to get your attention.”
“But I didn’t see anything! And when the car hit something—Oh God—I tried going forward, but it was stuck, and I felt the bump again…Oh God. Celeste…” Suddenly he was suffocating inside the car and had to get out. He opened the door and tumbled out, sliding onto the ground in a heap.
“I just panicked. I didn’t know who or what it was; all I could see was a black shape. I tried to convince myself it was a tire or something; I couldn’t bear to think otherwise. But you know what’s funny? I was thinking about you, Celeste. How I shouldn’t have left you, but how I was glad I hadn’t dragged you into my horror. How all I wanted was to protect you. I was too scared to get out of the car, too scared to see what I’d find. So I left…Oh God, Celeste, I left you!”
“I know, Ty. You freaked. You weren’t thinking. But I know you stopped later, at a phone booth.”
“I…I didn’t know. I had to tell someone to check, but I didn’t want to use my phone and it took a while to find a public one. Your cousin told me that it was too late, that you could’ve been saved if I hadn’t been such a coward. A monster. A monster who left the person I love more than anything to die like a dog—that’s how your mother put it, and she’s right. I think it’s only fitting that the same car that killed you is the one that brings me back to you. I swear, Celeste, I’ll never leave you again. I swear. Please forgive me, please, please forgive me!” Tyler buried his head in the dirt, exactly where he thought he belonged. Then he pulled himself back up into a sitting position, ready to get back into the car and finish what he came here to do.
Something stopped him in his tracks, but it wasn’t the voice this time. His hand flew to his cheek. A caress. He swore he’d felt a hand there.
“Celeste?” he whispered.
“I told you I’m here, Ty. And I’m telling you that I don’t want you to do this. I won’t let you.”
“But…but I don’t deserve to live, Celeste! It should’ve been me, not you! I have to do this now, don’t you see? And I can’t live knowing what I’ve done. I can’t bear it. I can’t go on without you; I don’t deserve to.”
“That’s exactly what you’re going to do, Ty. You’re going to go on—for me. But you can’t find peace if you live with the lie. You’re going to have to tell them what happened. And then you’re going to go on and have a life. A long life. And when the time comes, we’ll see each other again.”
“It’s time to go home now, Ty. I want you to give my mother a message, so she knows I want her to forgive you.”
“Celeste, I’m not worthy of her forgiveness. Or yours.”
“Ty, do as I say. I want you to tell her it’s the same as when I found her with Mr. Mac. She’ll understand.”
He creased his forehead, wondering if he’d misunderstood. The alcohol was starting to drag him under, clouding his thoughts. “Who’s Mr. Mac?”
“When I was young, I found her with my teacher. I was angry and upset. But she was sorry and I forgave her. She hadn’t intended to hurt me and it was the last thing she’d wanted. It was a secret we promised to keep only between us. I’ve never told a soul. She’ll know what it means. And it’ll prove to her that you weren’t imagining this.”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Just tell her, Ty. The rest will eventually work itself out. It’ll be hard, but it’ll get better. In time. You’ll see. I have to go now, Ty. I love you. Always. And I forgive you. Now you have to forgive yourself. Promise me you’ll be strong.”
“Celeste, don’t go! I love you. I can’t do this.”
“You can. And you must—for me. And I’ll be watching, so don’t piss me off.”
He felt the same gentle brush against his cheek one more time. And then she was gone.
His head started to swim; he was in no condition to drive. He lay back down on the ground, looking up at the stars. He imagined her there, with her pursed lips, daring him to disobey her.
He owed her this. Whatever she wanted, he owed it to her to comply. Even though he didn’t know how he could face it, how he could go on. Even though he was beyond repair.
He took the photo of her out of his pocket and clutched it to his chest. For you, Celeste, I’ll do anything. For you.