Q. 10: Finally! A confession at last! – IVY

READ MIGUEL’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 9

IVY

Was it? Because I remember what happened that night and, well, I don’t know if you can really count that as a confession.

Yeah, that’s something of a curse of mine. Even when I’m so drunk I’m flirting with telephone poles and confiding my deepest, darkest secrets to a toilet bowl, a part of me is still recording every single thing I do. It’s weird, embarrassing and kind of useless, really. I mean, it’s not like I’m in actual control of my faculties, right? All it does it make the mornings after that much more fun.

So I knew I’d gone on a bad bender when I woke up the next day and was sure of only three things: Number one, I was alive. Number two, from the way I was feeling, that was not necessarily a good thing. And Number 3, I’d met an angel the night before.

An angelic visitation. Pfft. That’s some Old Testament shit right there, eh?

I sat up slowly, clutching my head to keep it from splitting right down the middle. My skin felt crusted over with filth, and my mouth tasted as if mice had nested in it. I rubbed my face and became aware of the stickiness on my cheeks and the stinging in my eyes, which felt like a pair of marshmallows stuck onto my face. Oh God, what exactly had I been doing last night?

My mental CCTV camera took this as a sign to begin playing back its video footage of the previous night. After Tito Julio and I brought Lolo and Lola to the bus station. After I fled his repulsive presence as soon as my grandparents’ bus pulled out of the station, with a fulminating glare and a growled warning for him to stay the fuck away from my home and all who lived in it. After he’d taken a sledgehammer to what remained of my hopes and dreams, I figured he’d done enough damage to satisfy him.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the city in a daze, and it was a wonder I managed to make it back home in one piece. Later, I went to Tia Maria’s ostensibly to celebrate Trey’s birthday, but actually to consume as much alcohol as I needed to blot out the memory of Miguel staring at me, disbelief and appalled realization warring in his eyes. He’d wanted me to deny my uncle’s words, I could see it in his face. The lines I was supposed to say, the script I was supposed to follow—they were all there, shimmering in the air above his shoulder, and all I needed to do to keep him by my side was to play the role he desperately wanted me to play: Ivy, the sweet, innocent young girl who was wrongfully accused by her villainous uncle, whose honor Migs had to protect and defend like a knight of old.

The sweet, innocent girl that Migs loved, who was a perfect fit in his perfect world.

But that girl wasn’t me. And I think, with all the guilt and shame I felt at having my sordid past exposed and having Migs turn away from me, this was what hurt the most.

The pain I’d relentlessly sought to blockade behind a wall of glasses came roaring back, making me moan a little. But the video footage wasn’t finished yet. I saw myself at the restaurant, acting like the bubbly piece of froth that everyone thought I was with manic desperation, downing shot after shot of anything alcoholic that crossed my path with a reckless abandon that caused Trey to raise his eyebrows at me. He offered to bring me home when it was over, but even as far gone as I was, I couldn’t help noticing that he had his eye on this girl who was with us, a junior member of his college student council. I knew he’d been looking forward to escorting her home, and since the last thing I wanted was to spend the rest of the night alone with Miguel’s phantom silently condemning me, I didn’t think twice about accepting Jeff’s offer to take me home instead.

Ah, Jeff. Big, big mistake. Delayed reaction overtook me as I watched myself in our apartment, too busy drowning my sorrows to notice the nastiness Jeff was marinating in until it was nearly too late. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was. I knew that in most cases of rape the rapist isn’t a stranger but someone the victim knew and trusted. Honestly, nobody knew that better than me. I knew that Jeff’s ego was smarting from his breakup with Giselle. And I knew the real reason Jeff broke up with me. He’d been pressuring me to have sex with him, and when I wouldn’t give in—I don’t know, I just couldn’t respond to him sexually, even though I tried to—when I wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he broke up with me, saying I was too physically undeveloped for him and he wanted to be with a real woman or something to that effect.

But I saw now, shuddering as I watched my reel of memories, that he hadn’t quite let go of his fantasy of me as a kind of sexual trophy. If I hadn’t been so determined to drink myself into oblivion, I might’ve sensed his intentions coming off of him in noxious waves. I might’ve had the wits not to invite him into my home. I could’ve fought him off—brained him with a bottle or pulled a knife on him or something. Instead, he shoved me up against the door and plastered himself on me and I, I could so easily have turned into another statistic. Another date rape whose story would never be told.

But then, an angel appeared with a crash of thunder and a flash of light. No, not light. Pain. I touched the back of my head where a still-sore spot marked where the door had hit me, then prodded the bruise on my shin where it had slammed against the leg of our computer table as I fell. But he was there. My angel, who’d come to save me…

Shit. I must’ve been well and truly baked last night.

My memories stuttered to a stop at that point. I crawled off Erwin’s bed and got to my feet. My clothes hung on me like somebody’s wash left out in the rain for too long, and my hair was a disgusting mess. I headed toward the bathroom, casting a dispirited glance at the mess of gin bottles, glasses and overflowing ashtray on the dining table. Fuck it, I’ll deal with that later when I’m feeling human again.

Locking myself in the bathroom, I stood under the shower, clothes and all, and let the cool spray pelt my face and my throbbing scalp. I stayed in there for who knew how long, just letting the cleansing water massage my stiff, aching muscles. After a while, I shucked off my clothes right there in the shower stall and, armed with shampoo, body wash, loofah and toothbrush, scrubbed and scrubbed until my skin glowed pink and my teeth squeaked when I rubbed them. Only then did I feel clean again.

Empty, miserable, dull-headed and confused about the remaining gaps in my memory of the night before, but at least I was clean. A girl could do with much less.

Belatedly realizing that I’d forgotten my towel, I wrung my hair out as best I could, then opened the door and stepped out, puddles of water forming at my feet—

—and met Miguel’s wide-eyed gaze as he froze in the act of clearing the bottles away.

A moment passed, with the ticking of the clock the only sign of movement. I doubted either of us was even breathing. A crimson wave surged past the collar of Migs’ shirt, and he spun around until his back was to me, although not before his gaze had traveled downward, I noticed.

“Sorry! I didn’t see anything!” he blurted, which had to be the most blatant lie Migs had ever permitted himself to utter. He paid for this with a fit of coughing.

I exhaled and forced myself to let go of the door knob. “You’re right. There’s nothing to see here,” I heard myself say, making no move to cover up my childishly undeveloped body. At the sight of him, the remainder of last night’s memories had come crashing into my mind in a great, jumbled pile. Oh my God, how I acted around him—and oh, the things I said to him. Holy fuck. “Be sure to get your money back when you leave,” I added.

Frowning, he looked at me over his shoulder, then hastily turned around again, but I was already padding into my room, trailing water behind me, and closing the door. When I came out again, fully clothed and not quite looking like a wet, hairless cat this time, the bottles, glasses and ashtray had disappeared, and the table was wiped clean. And on it were a glass of water, our water pitcher, a dish of sugar cookies, and a white pill.

I stared at the items, then looked at him. “What’s all this?”

He shrugged, then pulled out a handkerchief, blew his nose into it, then folded it neatly and put it back into his pocket. “Alcohol is a diuretic,” he explained. “You’ll feel a lot better if you get yourself rehydrated. The cookies will help restore your blood sugar level. And the pill is ibupofren. If what you’re going through is anything like what I went through, you’ll need it for the headache,” he added with a small smile.

Without a word, I picked the pill up and washed it down with the glass of water, and another. Then I took one of the sugar cookies and ate it. After I swallowed the last bite, I said tonelessly, “You were here last night, weren’t you?”

“Yup.”

“Not an angel after all.”

His eyebrows lifted at that. There it was again, that strange smile. I’d never seen it before, although truth be told, I hadn’t expected to see him smile at me in any way again.

“How much do you remember?” he asked.

I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment. “Enough,” I replied, hoping he’d leave it at that. I was so not ready to deal with the complications my drunken ramblings were surely going to cause. “By the way, about Jeff…thanks,” I muttered.

He shrugged again. “That’s what I’m here for.”

I was shaking my head before he’d even finished his sentence. “No. No, Miguel, that is not what you’re here for,” I said tightly. “Nearly getting into fistfights with my shitstain of an uncle then getting sick and having to kick some asshole off your property are not what you’re here for. Getting drunk then having to hang out with a bunch of brats and getting punished by your mom are not what you’re here for. None of this—” I slashed a hand through the air as my voice rose—“is what you’re here for. Don’t you fucking get it? You’re not supposed to be dealing with any of this. You’re not supposed to have anything to do with me. You’re not supposed to be here at all! So why? Why did you come last night? Why are you still here?”

I was trembling by the end of that speech, both hands clenched around the back of a chair as the shame, guilt and misery of the past few days twisted into anger. Yes, I hurt him, I admit it, but he hurt me, too, you know. I was trying as hard as I could to set him free for his own good, so for fuck’s sake, why couldn’t he take a hint and make things a little easier for me? Couldn’t he see how much better off he was without me? And he was supposed to be the smart one around here.

For a long moment, he simply looked at me until my explosion of anger subsided into a smoldering glow. Finally, he coughed some more, blew his nose again, then placed both hands on the table and leaned toward me. “Why am I here?” he said in an infuriatingly calm, albeit slightly hoarse, voice. “I’m here because I want to know the truth.”

My heart thudded at the determined glint in his eyes. “You already know the truth. You heard it from my uncle. You heard it from me. What more do you want?”

“The whole truth, Ivy. Not just bits and pieces of it. And I want to hear it from you.”

“And if they come looking for you? You’re in enough trouble already, you know.”

“Don’t worry about that. Nay Loring’s gone to her church service, and she won’t be back for hours. My relatives won’t be coming over until well in the afternoon, and Reese’ll cover for me until then.” He pushed his glasses up and regarded me gravely. “It’s like you said. I’ve fought with your uncle twice over this. I’ve seen how this thing has messed you up—how it’s messed both of us up. If you’re using this to push me away and keep me at a distance, then I think I deserve an explanation at least.”

I turned away, my stomach clenching, my chest tight and aching. I can’t do it. He has no idea what he’s asking of me. To go through this again, to revisit my past and watch him turn away from me again in disgust and rejection… I took a step back as fear threatened to close in over my head. “You wouldn’t understand,” I tried again.

“That’s likely,” he agreed with surprising matter-of-factness. “There’s no way I can even begin to understand what you’ve been through. But I still want to hear it, even if I can’t understand it completely.”

I gave a humorless laugh. “Of course you do. Good luck solving this problem, Mr. Genius.”

“I don’t want to solve it. I just want to know it.”

I scowled down at the sugar cookies, shocked to find myself wavering. I can’t do it. I can’t tear down walls I spent a lifetime building, even for him. I can’t…can I?

At the edge of my vision, I could see that his hands were shaking. “Ivy, talk to me,” he pleaded. “Let me in. Please.”

I shoved my hair out of my face and fixed him a stony glare. “Fine. I’ll tell you,” I said as I pulled the chair out and sat in it. He settled down across me and listened solemnly as, for the first time in my life, I opened up about my past to another human being.

I told him everything. I held nothing back. I told him how when I was six, my dad packed his bags and left, never to be seen again in our town. “Go clean yourself up” were his last words to me. A year later, my mom left as well. This time, I knew better than to cry or cling or beg her to take me with her. She couldn’t even see me anymore; her world revolved around documents and making arrangements, and of course, that feverish impatience to get away and start living the life she felt was owed her.

As part of the arrangements, I was sent to live with my grandparents. At the time, I didn’t have any friends. People assumed that someone with my looks would have tons of friends already, so nobody wanted to be friends with me. Besides, there were those rumors. Stupid rumors about how I was some half-human child of a fairy or something, which was why my parents left me behind. As I grew older, the rumors changed. I was too wild, too weird, too friendly, too fake, too slutty, too snobbish, too much of an attention whore, too dumb, too sly—they couldn’t seem to agree on what exactly I was.

I did have one friend, though: Tito Julio, my mom’s youngest brother, who was fifteen at the time. Aside from my grandparents, he was the only didn’t treat me like an unwanted obligation. Tito Julio was my prince and hero rolled into one. He made me kites and paper dolls. He played teatime and jackstones with me. He taught me how to climb trees and showed me all the secret hideouts around town. At night, he’d sit me in his lap and cuddle me, and he’d tell me about how Lolo hated him, and how he was going to Manila one day and take me with him, and we’d live together in a palace, just the two of us. Then he’d tell me I was beautiful, that I was his angel, and that it didn’t matter if the other kids didn’t like me, because he was the only one I needed.

Oh, I adored him, as only a hero-worshipping little girl could. I promised him that when I grew older I’d marry him, and he never forgot that promise. It became our secret covenant: When I grew older and became a woman, he’d make me his.

But things began to change. His hands grew rougher, and sometimes when he touched me, it hurt. Other times, he’d make me do things that I recognized from my sex manual, but he said it was okay for me to do them because he was teaching me how to be his woman. I kept quiet about my feelings, because I couldn’t bear for him to stop touching me. I even begged for it sometimes. I loved being touched and petted and caressed. It made me feel good, and it took the loneliness away. If I had to endure a bit of pain and some disquieting feelings to keep him touching me, so be it.

Then I met Sharm and Erwin, and suddenly there were other people in my life who saw me for who I really was and still wanted to be my friend. They pulled me out of my cramped, little world, and showed me that I wasn’t the only one who had troubles to deal with. They taught me that it was okay to be different, because there were people who would care about me no matter what.

I began to spend less and less time with Tito Julio, and with the distance, I started seeing with clearer eyes. For instance, while I knew that he and Lolo didn’t get along, I’d begun to realize, given the way Tito Julio behaved in school, that Lolo sometimes had good reason to be displeased. We still cuddled in his room and he continued to touch me, but it was starting to make me feel…sick. And he was never interested in my stories about Sharm and Erwin. And even though he’d apologize for hurting me, he always forgot about it the next time and do it again.

He managed to graduate from high school, but flunked out of college in his first year. Then he began hanging out with a gang who were the very definition of “bad news”. And by that, I mean drugs—shabu and marijuana. Needless to say, his relationship with Lolo deteriorated even further. But I still adored him. He was still my hero. It was the one thing I thought would never change.

Until the night I followed him to a house at the edge of town. His gang was there, and to my surprise, a couple of girls as well. I remember the room with the flickering fluorescent light, the dirty couches, and the table with the rolled up cigarettes, blades, lighters and small packets of what looked to me at first like rock salt. They caught me, and Tito Julio held me still and forced me to watch as the girls, spurred on by the grinning men, took their clothes off and did the very same things to them that I did for Tito Julio. And I saw how ugly and sordid it all was. This was supposed to be love? This? This was a nightmare. Love had nothing to do with it. That lesson got burned into my psyche, along with the smell of sweaty bodies and sick-sweet smoke.

It was one of the worst nights of my life. Those girls—they wouldn’t let up on those girls. They treated them like rags to be passed around and thrown away. To this day, I still wonder if I couldn’t have done something to help them. Rationally, I know there was little I could’ve done—I couldn’t even move, I was so terrified that the men would grab me and make me join the girls, even though I was only twelve. But it still haunts me, the thought that I could’ve done something but didn’t.

By some miracle, we managed to get away before things took a turn for the worse. Some guy had come to warn them that the cops were coming, and the group dispersed in short order. Later, Tito Julio told me he hadn’t touched the shabu himself, just the weed, as if that somehow made it better. He claimed he would never have let those men have me, because I was his. But the spell had been irrevocably broken. I started avoiding him, staying out late and hanging out at my friends’ houses, and generally being extra-careful to make sure I was never alone with him. He noticed, I could tell, but that awful night had shattered whatever delusions I had, letting me see the kind of man he truly was. And where I once looked forward to becoming his woman, now the very thought of my body changing underneath my uncle’s watchful eyes filled me with revulsion and dread.

Maybe that was it. I’ve often wondered if it was. Maybe my fear had caused some gland in my brain to switch off, or maybe my body trying to protect me by simply refusing to develop. I turned thirteen, fourteen, fifteen… I was in already high school and still my body looked like a twelve-year-old’s. When I was in school, I utilized a whole bag of tricks to keep people from noticing. At home, though, I didn’t try quite as hard to hide it from my uncle. I knew he wouldn’t touch me as long as I looked like a child. I hated my body. I hated that there was yet another reason I couldn’t be like everybody else. But I was also grateful for it, in a way. My body was my armor, its immaturity my shield. In short, it was a confusing time for me.

I turned sixteen, and my uncle grew tired of waiting. One day, I rushed early to school, and since I hadn’t had breakfast, I just had some spaghetti at the cafeteria. By noon my stomach was cramping up, and I was sweating from the effort of keeping the spaghetti from making a surprise reappearance. So I went home early, and was met by my grandmother, who dosed me with ginger tea and sent me to bed. I didn’t realize she’d left the house until I heard my bedroom door open.

Tito Julio was standing over me. He’d disappeared for two days, and now he’d come home with bloodshot eyes and dirty clothes, and absolutely reeking of alcohol. I tried to sit up, but he pushed me down and lay on top of me while his hands pawed at my uniform. His sticky bulk and the smell of body odor and alcohol nearly made me vomit. It’s amazing, though, how quickly fear can clear your mind. I was dizzy and nauseous, but my head was suddenly so clear it felt as if it was full of ice. My bed—really an old wooden cot with a mattress—was too flimsy to support our combined weight, and when I tried to fight him off, one leg snapped, sending the bed listing to the side, spilling us to the floor. I tried to get up, but he grabbed my leg and hauled me backward so that I ended up sprawled on my stomach. In a flash, he had my skirt over my head and my panties around my knees, his weight pinning me down and his hand digging between my legs.

Then pain. A blazing, white spear of pain. Enough pain to turn the sky red.

But someone up there was still watching over me. I was lucky enough to be lying on my stomach; if I’d been on my back, I probably wouldn’t be here now, talking to you. Because my gut decided then and there to give up the fight. Yes, I threw up, right on the floor, right in my face. Half-digested spaghetti, tasting of bile and sourness, acid scorching my throat. The stench was unbelievable. Without thinking, I scooped my puke up and threw it over my shoulder at the grunting, rocking mass holding me down.

Somehow, it worked. It shouldn’t have; no self-defense class had ever taught the art of using your own vomitus as a weapon, but it caused Tito Julio to yell and roll off me. Shivering and weak, I pushed myself up and half-stumbled, half-ran to the bathroom, locking the door behind me and thanking God that Lolo had temporarily replaced the broken bolt in the bathroom with a sturdy length of wood. Then I crawled into the crevice between the toilet and the plastic barrel of water in the bathing area, heedless of the uneven tiles chafing my legs. The door banged once and Tito Julio shouted my name, then alternated between slurring apologies and bawling at me to open the door.

After a while, he left. Maybe one of the neighbors had heard him and had come to check, maybe one of my other uncles or their wives had come to visit. I stayed in there for an eternity, huddled into a ball of pain. The light was streaming in at an angle through the slit of a window above me when I finally stood up and took stock of myself. My underwear had disappeared, my uniform was hopelessly soiled, and there were streaks of blood on my thighs. I took our dipper and poured water over me, uniform and all, again and again until most of the puke and blood had been washed away. Then I opened the door, made sure that Tito Julio was out of sight, then simply walked out of the back door.

I walked along the grassy paths behind our row of houses, then headed out into the street. I must’ve looked a sight, with my stringy hair, dripping uniform and bare feet, but it was like I was moving through fog. By the time I got to Sharm’s house, I was bleeding again. Sharm and her mother took one look at me, and quickly hustled me inside. They gave me a warm bath and a change of clothes, then they bundled me up and put me in Sharm’s bed. The blood must’ve given Sharm’s mother the wrong idea, though, because she also discreetly slipped in a sanitary pad among the clothes.

I finally got my trembling under control when Erwin dropped in later. At my best friends’ gentle prodding, I revealed that no, I wasn’t bleeding because of my period, that I had never bled because of a period, and wasn’t likely to do so in the unforeseeable future. But when I tried to tell them what happened, my throat closed up and my trembling returned, and all I could say was, I didn’t want to go home that night. My friends asked no further questions, and I spent the night tucked safely between the two of them in Sharm’s bed, listening to them chat about inconsequential things until the fog cleared away.

Time went on. My body healed and the pain disappeared. People had seen me walking to Sharm’s house in my wet, stained uniform, but that was explained away by my deciding to visit my friend and meeting an accident along the way. Tito Julio must’ve cleaned up the puke in my room although the smell lingered for a while, but my grandmother assumed it was just the natural progression of food poisoning. Some time later, Tito Julio went off with his gang to another town, doing who knew what I didn’t care, so long as he was out of my sight. And soon enough, I and my friends had passed the UPCAT, then we were graduating from high school and preparing to start our new lives at university.

But those memories were still here inside my mind. All of them. The stupid girl trailing after her hero, lapping up his attention like a starving thing. That night in the drug den. Those poor, abused girls. And that day filled with puke and blood and pain. Tito Julio was still inside me. If anything, he’d proven the truth of that in the last few days.

 

They were all inside me. My darkness. My shame. Me.

I told Migs all this. I spoke in an inflectionless, monotonous drone that kept the emotions at bay. I felt almost detached, as if I was simply reporting an incident that happened to somebody else. When I was done, I poured myself another glass of water, and looked at Miguel. He’d listened quietly for the most part, his hands clasped tightly in front of him. He looked pale and not a little shellshocked. That wasn’t surprising, since I’d made no effort to make the images more palatable. He wanted the truth, so that’s what I gave him.

“So what do you think?” I asked. His head dipped as he seemed to stare at nothing in particular. When the silence lenthened, I took pity on him and decided to provide him a graceful exit. Heaving a sigh, I got to my feet. “Listen, Miguel, you’ve stayed long enough. You really should get back into bed. You still sound bad, if you want my opinion.”

He stood up as well, his face turned away from me. My chest ached. I knew it.

“So, um, I’ll just see you at registration, okay? Or we might run into you in the campus later some time,” I continued brightly. “So yeah, ah, thanks for cleaning up and—”

He walked out the door, closing it behind him.

“—and goodbye,” I whispered to the empty apartment.

After some time, I forced myself to pick up the empty glass and saucer of uneaten sugar cookies, and take these to the counter beside the sink. I made a mental list of the things I needed to do. Sharm and Erwin were due back in a couple of days. I had to clean up the apartment before they arrived. Straighten up the rooms. Change the sheets. Do the laundry. And there was still the mess I made in the bathroom. And in all the chaos of past two weeks, I’d completely forgotten to get our classcards.

Turning, I leaned against the counter, slid to the floor, and buried my face in arms. That was it then. He made his choice, and his choice was to walk away. It was all for the best, wasn’t it? And really, it wasn’t fair of me to expect him to swallow a truth like this—that the girl he liked was actually the niece and ex-lover of an addict. That her looks hid the ugliness she’d steeped in ever since she was a child. That she was damaged, body and soul.

I’d opened myself up to him. Was it wrong of me to do so? He was so good, so innocent and honorable, and I just went and shoved my darkness in his face. How could I force him to deal with something like that? He was just a kid. Just a kid.

And I loved him. I loved him so much, and I ended up taking away his innocence and breaking his heart. Would the day ever come when I stopped destroying the ones I loved?

“Migs,” I whimpered. “Migs, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too.”

I stiffened and looked up just as Miguel plopped down cross-legged on the floor in front of me, holding a couple of Coke cans. He popped open one of the cans and offered it me sheepishly. “I wanted a Coke, but I forgot you’re hungover right now,” he explained as I dazedly took the can from him. “Then again, the sugar and caffeine will do wonders for your blood sugar and energy levels.”

“What—I thought you—d-didn’t you leave?” I stammered.

He took a swig of his Coke, coughed, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Yup, I did. I went to the store and bought these. I’ve drunk enough calamansi juice to float an oil tanker, thanks very much.”

 

“But you left.” For some reason, I was having trouble reconciling that with the fact that he was sitting in front of me right now. “You didn’t say a word. You just walked out.”

“Sorry about that, too,” he apologized. “I needed some time to absorb everything you told me. I didn’t mean to ignore you. I was just…overwhelmed, I guess.”

“That’s understandable,” I said weakly, eyeing my soda can. Didn’t something like this happen before? Oh yeah, the first time we met. I spilled my heart out to him, and afterwards, he bought me a Coke.

“That’s not going to drink itself, you know,” he pointed out. Dutifully, I took a sip, wincing as the liquid fizzed down my throat. He’s here, I thought in wonder. He didn’t leave after all. What could this mean?

“Ivy.”

I looked at him. He was smiling again, that strangely tender little smile. My heart pounded for an entirely different reason. I’d missed his smile so much.

“Did you think I wasn’t coming back?” When I nodded, he sighed and shook his head. “You’re such a nutcase,” he informed me, his voice warm and tinged with humor. “Don’t you remember what I said to you when we first met? You can tell me anything you want, talk for as long as you want, because I’m here to listen to you. I didn’t mean that as a one-time offer. I meant that for always.”

I bit my lip, doubt and happiness warring inside me. “But Migs, how can—what?”

He’d closed his eyes and seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. “Nothing. You called me Migs again,” he said shyly, pushing his glasses upward, and I wrapped my hands around the soda can to keep from throwing myself at him.

“But I’ve told you the truth about me. The whole dirty, lowdown, no-good truth. How can you still—” want to be with me? I tried to say but choked on the words. “Don’t you have any sense of self-preservation at all?” I demanded, trying for a joke instead.

His grin flashed. “I’ve wondered the same thing myself, and it looks like the answer is: none whatsoever.” We laughed a little at that, then all humor left his face. “Lolo Simon told me before that he had a very good idea of how strong you are. I’m starting to realize that myself. But more than that, I’m starting to realize how amazing you really are.”

“Amazing?” Of all the things I’d expected to hear from him, that had to be at the bottom of the list.

“Yup. Amazing.” He gave me another smile.

I rubbed a hand across my brow, wondering if he wasn’t misunderstanding something. “I begged him to touch me,” I said bluntly. “You know the things people do in porn videos? I did those with my own uncle. You’re a guy. Tell me, when a girl’s begged you to touch her, is it so farfetched to think that she was begging you to rape her, too? Because I’ve thought about that, you know. Maybe I was asking for it. Maybe I’d always been asking for it. Maybe I—”

“Hey, quit it.”

I glared at him. “You wanted the truth—”

He covered my mouth with his hand, but it was the icy anger in his eyes that silenced me. “That is not the truth. And I won’t let anyone call you a slut, not even you.” When I merely stared at him, he removed his hand and raked his fingers through his hair. “I don’t understand why you think you were asking for it. Your uncle, Jeff, that agent from before and all those other perverts—they were all in control of their own actions, no matter what they told you. In not a single case did you ask for it. That’s just not how it works.”

“Oh, and you know exactly how it works, do you?” I muttered.

He sent me a severe look. “You were a child, Ivy. You were even younger than me when it happened,” he went on, an odd expression flitting across his face. “You couldn’t have understood the repercussions of what you were doing. All you knew was that you wanted to feel cared for, right? It’s normal to want that. It’s a human thing, and that scumsucker totally took advantage of you. So it’s not your fault. Do you get it? It’s not your fault.”

It’s not my fault. His words swept through my mind like a cool breeze in a windowless room. It was the first time I’d heard that from someone who knew my story completely.

“God, I want to grow up already!” he growled, slamming his fist on the floor. “I swear, I’m going to pound that scumsucker right into the pavement. I’m going to destroy him in a hundred different ways. Then I’m going to hunt down Jeff and that pervert agent and everyone who’s ever hurt you, and I’m going to ruin them.”

I must’ve made a sound, because he stopped and turned red, and for some reason, he looked angry with himself. It was clear he had no idea what his words meant to me, how they were settling deep inside and creating ripples that reached every corner of my soul.

“You’ve got it all wrong, Migs,” I said softly. “The amazing one here isn’t me. It’s you.”

His gaze softened as he smiled back at me. I wanted so much to touch him that I was shaking, but I was afraid as well. I felt too exposed, too vulnerable, and I needed to pull back and shore up my emotional walls before I crumbled to pieces in front of him. “And now, if you don’t mind, I need a smoke,” I announced, hoping to steer the conversation toward lighter matters. “Have you seen my cigarettes and lighter? You didn’t throw them out with the stubs in the ashtray, did you?”

He got to his feet and reached down to help me up. My cigarette case and lighter were lying on the counter where he’d placed them, but just as I was about to light up, he spoke my name again.

“Listen, I—I know I can’t do anything for you right now,” he began haltingly. “I’m not old enough or strong enough yet. The way I am now, I can’t protect you the way you deserve to be protected. Wait, don’t say anything.” He held a hand up to cut off my protest. “I can tell you this, though. Everything that happened to you, everything you did or who you were before—they don’t change a thing. Yes, I’m glad you told me, and I’m glad I got to know you better, but if you think anything you said today could make me love you any less, then think again.”

His eyes grew big and for a moment he looked panicked, as though the words had slipped out without his consent. “You don’t need to answer me, and it’s okay if you can’t return my feelings right now,” he went on in a rush. “But if you ever need someone to listen to you or to make you feel cared for or to just let you be whoever you want to be, then…I’m right here. For as long as you need me.”

My cigarette fell from my fingers, forgotten. He held his arms out, blushing madly, and I walked into his embrace in a kind of trance. As his arms wrapped around me, he lowered his head and said: “There’s no one around, Ivy. There’s only me, and I’m not going anywhere. So go ahead and cry if you want to. I won’t tell anyone.”

I laughed, and he kissed my hair. The next moment, I was crying in deep, wrenching sobs, my tears dampening the front of his shirt as I clung to him. I cried for the little girl who wanted to feel loved, and for those poor girls who, I now realized, were just like me. I cried for the teenager who learned to hide her fear and hatred behind a sparkling smile. I sobbed out my pain, terror and deep, gutting shame into Migs’ shoulder. I muffled my screams of fury and betrayal against his chest. We sank to our knees, and I pressed my face against his stomach and wept for every mask I created to conceal my ugliness, piling on deception after deception until I didn’t know who I was anymore.

I cried like I’d never cried before, a veritable storm of tears—a thousand honest tears for every lie I ever told. And Migs held me close all through the storm. In fact, I didn’t even notice that he’d moved us to our pile of pillows until my weepfest finally tapered down, and I lifted my head to find him leaning back against pillows and me practically lying on top of him.

Hiccuping, I sat back between his legs and wiped my face with the hem of my shirt as delayed embarrassment at my unrestrained wailing set in. “S-sorry about that,” I croaked.

He reached over for the half-full Coke can he’d placed nearby, and pressed it into my hands, urging me to drink it all up. “See? I knew this much sugar and caffeine would come in handy,” he quipped.

A giggle escaped me. “You really think of everything, huh?”

“Naturally.”

I giggled again, and when I tried to blow my nose on my shirt, he rolled his eyes skyward and offered me the use of his slightly crusty but still neatly folded handkerchief. “You might as well,” was all he said when I shot him a look of mock disgust.

“Migs, thank you,” I whispered, pushing my hair back and fingering his handkerchief. “I always seem to be telling you this, but thank you.”

In reply, he kissed me sweetly on the lips. “I love you, Ivy,” he whispered back. Then he grinned. “Yes! I finally get to say that out loud.”

We settled back against the pillows, with his arms around me and my head on his shoulder, and in a matter of minutes, I was fast asleep.

I woke up to the sound of somebody moving around the apartment. I pushed myself up and looked around. It had grown noticeably darker outside—a glance at the clock told me it was nearly six—and I was alone on the pillow heap, with no sign of Miguel anywhere. The pang of loss was quickly smothered by the memory of his confession. I closed my eyes as I held the memory up in my mind. His words, his smile, the way he never gave up on me, never once let go… He changed me that day, you know. Years later, his words gave me courage when I was undergoing therapy in LA, making it easier for me to face my issues. Did he really think he couldn’t do anything for me? That he wasn’t strong enough to protect me? That stubborn, silly boy. He saved my life. His strength was enough to pull me out of my darkness. Just as he was, he was already strong enough.

Pfft, like I said, he’s amazing.

Which left me with one teeny-tiny problem: Now what do I do?

There was a noise, and Sharm walked out of our bedroom, holding a pile of clothes in her arms. “Oh, you’re awake,” she said, smiling. “How was your nap? Feel better?”

I did a quick inner check. “Yeah,” I replied in wonder. “Yeah, I do, actually.” Then I launched myself from the pillows and threw my arms around her, spinning us around and causing her to drop the clothes. “Shaaaaaarm!” I squealed. “I’m so glad you’re baaaack!”

“Easy there, brat. I missed you, too.” Laughing, she returned the hug, then pushed me back and gave me a once-over. “Hmm, looks like you’re okay. More than okay, in fact. Maybe I shouldn’t have rushed getting back here after all.” She explained that she’d met my grandparents when they arrived home yesterday, and decided to cut her vacation a day short and hurry back as soon as she could. Erwin wasn’t able to come, though. He’d wanted to, but his mother had been fighting with his father and was in a fragile state at the moment. “We knew your uncle’s been lurking around, and we didn’t think it was safe for you to be left alone here, so ta-dah,” she sang out, doing a little two-step.

“Thanks, but I wasn’t alone. Migs was with me all this time,” I told her, smiling to myself. “He was here earlier. Did you see him?”

“Ah, so you took my advice after all,” she practically purred. “But no, he was long gone when I arrived. He left you a note, though.”

I snatched up the folded sheet of note paper on the table, and read:

Sorry I had to go. I didn’t want to wake you. I hope I get to see you when classes start. Maybe we can have lunch together or something?

 And in case you’re thinking of pretending I didn’t say it, I love you.

 Love,

Migs

“‘I love you. Love, Migs,’” Sharm read out loud over my shoulder, causing me to jump back, clutching the note to my chest. “Wow, that’s two ‘loves’ coming from our favorite stoic little man. This sounds serious,” she teased.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said primly, slipping the note into my pocket.

Her eyebrows arched, mischief twinkling in her eyes. “Mmhmm? And I suppose this has nothing to do with the clothes you left in the shower? And the fact that you were practically unconscious when I arrived? What have you two been doing here, hmm?”

“It’s definitely not what you’re thinking, you depraved woman,” I countered, sticking my tongue out. “And I was going to pick up my clothes, I’ll have you know. It’s not my fault you came home a day early.”

“Oh really now. And I wonder what Erwin’ll do when he sees that you’ve turned his room into a hovel. Maybe I should take a picture,” she shot back.

“Okay, okay! I’ll clean up before he comes home. Starting right now, in fact, while you fill me in on what you guys’ve been doing. What time did you get here, by the way?”

We bustled about the apartment while Sharm updated me about her family, the neighbors and various goings-on back home, but it seemed to me that she was somewhat distracted. Finally, she ordered me to stop and face her.

“Why? What’s up?” I wondered, pausing in the act of sweeping the floor.

She inspected me with narrowed eyes. “I was right. You do look different.”

“What? No, I don’t. I’m just wearing my hair down, that’s all,” I said with a laugh as I gathered my hair and pulled it over my shoulder.

“No, that’s not it. There’s something else…” She pursed her lips and scrutinized at me some more while I obligingly struck poses for her, holding our whisk broom like a baton, a sword, a guitar. Eventually, she shook her head and gave up. “Oh forget it. So what was Miguel doing here anyway?” she asked, going back to searching through our food supply for something to cook for dinner.

I lowered the broom and smiled. “He came here to talk. That’s it, just talk.”

“Mmhmm?”

“He wasn’t supposed to be here, though.”

“Oh yes?”

“He’s sick. And grounded. And his family hates me and is trying to keep us apart.” When Sharm stopped and stared, I gave her another disarming smile. “He got into a fight with Tito Julio, did you know? Twice, apparently. And Lolo got him drunk and he turned outrageously flirty. Oh, and he fought with my boss, too, when I took him and Reese along on a shoot, but Orion adores him now. But not ‘Black Sugar’ Ian. I don’t think Migs likes him much.”

Sharm’s jaw was hanging so low she could’ve saved me the effort of sweeping. “Then we went on a date, only it turned out not to be a date date, just a complete and utter disaster,” I went on conversationally. “Then Tito Julio told him about us and—and that was totally not fun. By the way, Jeff will never be welcome here again, ever.

“What on earth—?” Sharm said faintly.

“So I told him everything. Migs, I mean. I told him about Tito Julio and me, about what happened in the past, everything.”

Sharm’s eyes grew wide. “Everything?” she breathed. “You mean—”

“Everything,” I replied firmly.

“You told Miguel,” she murmured. “You finally told someone. Oh, Ivy.”

I bit my lip, but I couldn’t resist. “One more thing: He kissed me. And you can bet your sweet ass I kissed him back. That boy kisses like every girl’s fantasy, I tell you.” I sighed dreamily and stared off into the distance for a while, then straightened and winked at my stunned best friend. “All of those not necessarily in order, you understand.”

Sharm blinked a few times, then a wide smile bloomed on her face. “I knew there was something different about you. You’re in love with him.”

I smiled back and nodded.

Laughing, she grabbed my hands and proceeded to twirl me around the table. “I knew it! I knew it! You’ve been in love with him for, like, forever, and you’ve finally, finally realized it. I told Erwin you couldn’t possibly be that dense, that it was only a matter of time. Oh, I’m so proud of you!”

“Hey, now, you needn’t put it that way—”

“And he loves you, too!” she cried, completely ignoring my grumbling. “Congratulations! I’ve always known you and Miguel are perfect for each other.”

“We’re not together.”

She screeched to a halt and looked at me. “Huh?”

“We’re not together,” I repeated, stepping away from her. “It’s not possible for us.”

She frowned so hard lines appeared on her brow. “I read his note, Ivy. How the hell can you not be together?”

I sucked in a breath, then slipped my hand into my pocket where Miguel’s note lay. “It’s like Migs said. This changes nothing. His feelings for me and mine for him don’t change the fact that we can’t be together. I’m twenty. He’s thirteen. There’s just no way. Besides,” I added, smiling wryly through my tears, “Erwin’s going to kill me when he finds out.”

The seconds ticked away.

“What do I do now, Sharm?” I said in a tiny voice. “I don’t know how to let him go anymore. Just what the fuck do I do now?”

Sharm stared at me for a long moment. Then without a word, she turned around, put the vegetables back in the refrigerator and the tin can where we kept our rice back inside the the cupboard, then marched off to grab our purses, grab her keys, and grab my hand.

“Come on, brat,” she barked as she pulled me along like a kite on a string. “Forget about dinner or cleaning up. We’re going to Sarah’s and you’re going to tell me everything. In proper order this time.”

READ MIGUEL’S RESPONSE TO QUESTION NO. 10

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