Chasing After You - Sneak Peek
Two Months ago
The heaves haven’t lessened since I pulled away from the bar. I turn into a spot and throw my car into park. Our bench. I didn’t know where else to go. We came here so many times over the years, a spot we found near the end of high school. Almost every visit was to celebrate an amazing milestone, like graduation or when his team won the state championship. We celebrated here about a month after he was drafted to play professional football as well. The only time we were here for a sad moment was when his grandmother passed about ten years ago. Now, there is no “we.” We aren’t here. I am. Alone. By choice, but still…. He’ll go to my house first. Hell, he has a key and a cushion molded to his ass on my couch. I exhale and ignore the tug of the past for a short time.
It’s the right decision—sever all ties. I know it is. Well, for him anyway. He’s happy, at least he appears happy. For him, I would take a bullet, assuming I could shove him out of the way. For him, I will wallow in heartbreak and stride forward a tiny bit each day without my almost lifelong best friend.
Our unlikely friendship started in third grade when Leo yanked my ponytail hard while taking a step backward. The memory makes my heart constrict.
“Let go you big oaf!” I recall shouting at him. It only happened once. He didn’t expect me—barely a whiff of a girl—to stand up to him and his towering size. Even then his size was imposing.
He laughed and released the ponytail that reached to my waist.
I turned to face him. “How dare you? I don’t even know you!”
“It was either grab your hair or let him tackle you.” Young Leo pointed to a classmate sprawled at my feet.
My mighty protector, a role he filled a few times over the years. “Well, thank you. I’m Lilianna.” I extended my hand to him.
His hands were gigantic and enveloped mine. “I’m Leo, short for Leonardo. I guess our parents like long names.” A sadness filtered into his eyes when he said “parents.”
I shrugged. “Everyone in my family has long names, except my big brother.”
“How many of you are there?” Leo asked with his head cast down toward the ground.
“I have three sisters and a brother. I’m fourth in line. You?”
“It’s just me and my—”
The recess bell rang and cut off our first conversation. It was the start of a beautiful friendship spanning most of my life.
The trill of my phone pulls me back to the present again. A friendship that is now over. I ignore the text message; I know it’s from Leo.
I’m alone after the final confrontation I’m willing to have with the enigmatic Danica. His girlfriend comes and goes from the bar and Leo’s bed when it suits her. Apparently, she travels frequently for her job. Even though she’s rarely present for more than four or five nights a month, she has demands of her boyfriend—demands that include an engagement ring and never spending time with me alone. She’d prefer he spend no time at all with me, even though our monthly movie nights have been in place for the last six or so years. She clearly doesn’t know Leo as well as I do. He would never betray her. He’s loyal to a fault. It’s not how he’s built. Additionally, he isn’t interested in me as more than his best friend, who happens to be a woman. As far as I know, he never has been.
He’s found family. Choosing to end our friendship impacts more than me and him. It affects my entire family, and it isn’t going to go over well at all.
Without thinking, I answer the call that comes through instead of rejecting it. I can already hear him talking. Ugh!
“Lilianna, talk to me please.”
“I can't. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
The ache in my heart is difficult to bear, yet I force out the words. “No, you don't understand. I'm in love with you.”
I imagine him scrubbing his beefy hand down his face like he does when he’s frustrated. “Where are you? I want to talk face-to-face.”
“Don't. I didn't want you to find out like this. You’re dating someone else. It's not who I am. I'm not a home-wrecker.”
His tone sounds more forceful and pained. “Where are you, Stella? We need to talk. I refuse to allow you to make this decision for me—for us.” He gave me the nickname sometime in high school after he learned my middle name is Stellaluna. At a later point, he shared he selected it because I’m his North Star.
“There is no us. There can't be.” I don't need to bring up Danica's ultimatum. He's well aware. I'm sure he's as torn about losing our friendship as I am.
Me on the other hand, “devastated” and “heartbroken” barely describe the hollow darkness I feel. You would think we’ve kissed or been together, but I've never tasted his whiskey-laced lips and likely never will.
I hear the telltale sounds of my alarm and my new puppy barking. Also, I’m certain, despite his haste, he’ll let Lola out of the crate and let her out before leaving.
After a few minutes pass, he continues. “I know where you are. Please wait for me. I’m coming to you.”
“Leonardo, please don’t. I can’t handle more right now.” My words are disingenuous because the only thing I want is a huge bear hug and assurance he could be mine. His hugs are epic and can fix almost anything wrong in my life. No! Not this! It’ll only make the raw wound gape more.
“Stella, it makes me crazy you’re hurting right now, and it’s my fault. Stay there, please. This conversation needs to be in person.”
“Please don’t. This is hard enough. I won’t make you choose.” A silence falls over the line. I love you, I whisper in my soul. I pull the phone away from my ear, the call still connected. “Goodbye, Leonardo. You’re the best friend a girl could ever ask for.”
I end the call and force my lead-laden feet to move toward my car. He’ll be here within the next five minutes. As I crest the hill and stop near the exit, I glance back at our bench once more. It was a special place. I will never come back here again. I reminisce a bit too long, until Leo charges into the lot and parks. I take that as my cue to leave.