It's one of those nights. The breezy, feel-good kind, but she can't help but feel like her heart is breaking. Caving in on her, more like it. Like her lungs are ready to collapse. It's suffocating—this feeling. But she goes through it at least once a week, if not several times. It always ends up the same: Laptop on the floor, loud, sad music blaring through her expensive speakers, her curling into a ball and crying herself to sleep.
That's the 2 a.m. run, and nobody has been able to stop it. And right now, at 2 a.m., she's writing again. Not typing—actually writing on a piece of paper. Maybe if she writes to him, he'll answer her. He always liked letters, a smile growing on his face every time he received one. His smile was mesmerizing. She fell in love with his smile every single time. And that's what inspired her late night stories. Her 2 a.m. run. She's crying now, scratching words into the paper, not sure they make sense. The tears fall onto the crumpled paper.
Six months without him. He's gone. He's not coming back. She thinks about him every night. His thick, dark eyelashes. His thin, pale lips. The way his jaw clenched whenever he watched her write. The way his eyebrows furrowed whenever he drew her.
She drops the pencil. It's useless. He's not coming back. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't. He's dead.
Carter is dead.
"Ashton," her mom calls from downstairs, "your dad's here."
Ashton sighs, grabbing her duffel bag. Then she reaches for her laptop bag, her hand almost grabbing the paper from last night. Her breath hitches but she leaves it, quickly grabbing the fraying strap and rushing downstairs. Her dad is waiting in the car like usual. Her mom is cooking breakfast for her siblings—Catherine and Blake.
"Ashton," her mom scolds as she looks over her daughter's outfit.
"What?" Ashton asks, looking down at her clothes. "Mom, they're just shorts."
"You're going to college," she says. "I would expect at least something nicer."
"It's August, and it's Texas, mother," Ashton responds. "It's hot."
Her mom just shakes her head, turning back to the stove. "Your father's waiting."
Ashton rolls her eyes, stomping down the stairs, letting the screen door slam behind her. Her dad is looking down at his phone, a smile tugging at his lips. She taps on the passenger window once and he automatically unlocks the car, not looking up once.
"Dad," she finally says. "We have to go. It's a three hour drive."
"Right, right," her dad says, finally looking up at her. "Nice...style."
She rolls her eyes. Lately everyone had been freaked out by her new choice in clothing. No more skirts and dresses for this girl—just band tanks and short shorts and her ratty old Vans. Well, that was her summer look, anyway. Her winter look consisted of sweaters and skinny jeans and new Chuck Taylor's.
"It's a new me for a new life," she tells him, flipping the visor down. "Don't even say anything about the hair or makeup."
Her hair was now purple, dyed to perfection. She'd taken to putting eyeliner thick on the top, thin on the bottom...black eyeliner that surrounded her whole eye. Her hair is straight today, laying in perfect waves on her tanned shoulders.
"What are we waiting for?!" she asks, closing the visor. "Road trip!"
Three miserable hours. That's what it takes to get her dad to cough up some cash. When they arrive at the campus, Ashton gets out, spinning around to face her dad before he can even touch the handle.
"Don't," she warns. "We've had enough alone time, don't you think? So why don't you just hand over the cash and we'll see each other at Thanksgiving?"
Her dad obliges, digging in his khakis pocket for $300 and hanging it over without a word. He smiles at her, and then he's gone, the old impala that Ashton loves so much disappearing from view. Ashton turns around, facing the huge dorm building in front of her. Her duffel bag suddenly feels too heavy for her small hand but she holds on anyway. There's no way she's choking. Not today. She doesn't need Carter. She takes a deep breath and heads for the door.
Once inside, it's pretty easy to find her dorm. It's only on the second floor, the one closest to the bathroom. She reaches into her pocket for her key and unlocks the door. There are two empty beds and blank walls, which indicates she's the first to her room. Ashton sighs with relief and throws her duffel bag on the bed on the left. She shuffles over to the sad mattress, it creaking as she unzips her bag. She first pulls out a poster. It's a big poster—it'll take up most of the wall. Ashton finds a place to hang it and smiles at it. Then she works on her clothes.
After everything is situated, her roommate decides to make an appearance. A tall, blond boy is following her, boxes in hand. The girl smiles at Ashton.
"You must be Ashton," she say, holding out her hand. "I'm Blane."
Ashton shakes her hand, trying not to notice the boy's eyes wandering over to her poster.
"You like Blink-182?" he asks.
"Well, that's typically why people put posters up," she says.
Blane wrinkles her nose. "Ugh. Luke is a big music nut, too."
Luke puts the box on Blane's bed and holds out his hand. "I'm Luke."
"Ashton," I say, ignoring his hand. "I'll guess I'll see you later; I'm going out."
Blane smiles. "See you."
"He's from Australia, Dylan," Ashton says into the phone. "Right? What's he doing here in Texas?"
Dylan sighs, the line crackling. "Ashton, people move to America. Some people actually like it."
"I know that," Ashton says. "Anyways, I better go. The Starbucks line is finally moving."
Dylan laughs as the line ends, leaving Ashton to contemplate what drink she wants. She finally decides on a mocha cookie crumble.
"Name?" the sullen-looking guy behind the counter asks, holding a sharpie in one hand and a cup in the other.
"Ashton," she says.
"Yeah?" someone says.
Ashton ignores it as she walks over to an empty table. It's not three seconds later when there's a guy sliding into the seat across from her.
"Did you say Ashton?" he asks.
She nods. "He asked for my name."
"Ohhhhh," the guy says, smiling. "That makes sense."
"Because my name's Ashton as well," he says, looking over his shoulder, his eyes scanning over a skinny blonde. "And I also heard you talking to your friend about Australia."
"You're from there too? God, why are you here—in Texas, of all places?" she asks.
He turns back around, his eyes piercing hers. "My friend Luke came because a family emergency. We followed because we're a package deal. He wanted to go to college with his sister—half-sister, I might add—and then we said we would too. What about you, Ashton? Why're you here?"
She rolls her eyes. "They offer music and creative writing here. I got a scholarship, decided there was no where better than three hours from home, and stayed."
He nods, his eyes flitting to some curvy brunette. "God, American girls are so hot."
"You're a dog," she snorts.
"A dirty one." He winks at her. "Let's get—"
"Ashton," the guy calls.
They both stand up but the guy realizes it's for her.
"This is going to get confusing," he says to her.
"Yeah, it is," she agrees. "I'll call you Ash if I ever see you again."
She walks over to the counter and grabs the coffee, not looking back as she heads for the door.
"What are you doing here?!" Gabby screams loudly when she sees Ashton. "I didn't think you would get into this college!"
"I pulled some strings." Ashton grins.
"Gabby," her roommate sighs, the cigarette rolling between her thumb and forefinger.
Ashton hasn't been in Gabby's room more than two minutes and she already smells of smoke and sex. Gabby's roommate takes a hit and blows out smoke into perfect rings.
"Gabby's been working on her rings," she tells Ashton. "She's not very good but better than most."
Ashton looks over at Gabby. "You're smoking again?"
"God, Ash, it's college," Gabby says. "Of course I'm smoking."
Ashton rolls her eyes. "And I'm taking shot after shot."
"You should be!" she squeals.
"Gabby!" the girl snaps.
"Oh, shut up, Alison," Gabby tosses over her shoulder. "We start classes tomorrow, and you're already high."
"Just go to the activities fair," Alison sneers, her gray eyes bloodshot, pupils dilated.
Gabby clicks her tongue and turns to Ashton. "So, fresh-meat, did you find any fresh-men?"
"Gabs," Ashton says tiredly. "I'm going to go now, okay?"
"Don't leave," she pleads, grabbing Ashton's skinny arm. "God, Ash, I've missed you!"
"You saw me at my birthday party," she reminds the strawberry-blonde girl. "I'm going to go now, okay? You stay here and practice your rings."
Gabby puffs and crosses her arms over her flat chest. "Okay."
Ashton laughs as she exits the room, almost immediately bumping into a white-haired guy about her age.
"Sorry," he says, the Australian accent almost sounding normal to her now.
"Australia, really?" she asks. "How many of there are you?"
He grins. "So you've met my colleagues, I assume. I'm Michael, and there are four of us."
"Well, you're the third I've met," she says. "Where's the other one?"
"What's your name first?"
"I know; I've already met Ashton," she sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. "He seemed very interested in staring at my hips."
"He likes them wide," Michael teases. "So you've met Ashton, Ashton. Well, that leaves Luke or Calum."
"Somebody call me?" a Hawaiian-looking boy asks, his accent not quite matching his skin tone.
"Calum, this is Ashton," Michael says. "Ashton, the fourth one."
Calum smiles. "Ashton told me he met another Ashton. Crazy, huh?"
She nods. "I really need to get back to my room."
"You're rooming with Luke's sister, aren't you?" Calum asks.
She nods. "I've already met him. He asked a stupid question."
They ignore her. "I'm pretty sure my roommate is gay," Michael says. "He has that look."
"Vibe, too," Calum adds, nodding to Ashton. "He very much puts off that gay vibe."
"What's his name?" Ashton asks.
"Alex," Michael says.
"Oh, God," Ashton giggles. "Alex? I know him! He went to my high school. He's a year ahead."
"Is he gay?"
She nods, stifling a laugh. "Be careful; he's quirky."
"Pretty lanky too," Calum comments. "Perfect for Michael."
Michael shoves him. "I need to go. I have class tonight."
Calum and Michael nod at her and head on their way. Ashton lets out a shaky laugh and starts walking to the other end of the hallway towards her room.
Blane isn't there. Instead, there's Luke, curled on her bed, eyes closed, thumping his head against the wall to whatever music is blaring in his headphones. Ashton stops and listens, noting "I Miss You" by Blink-182. She then slams the door and he jumps, ripping the earbuds out.
"Dear Lord, you scared me," he says.
"Where's Blane?" Ashton asks, walking to her bed. "And why're you here?"
"Blane's on a Starbucks run, and I'm waiting for my Starbucks," he answers. "What about you?"
"Getting ready to write," she says, plopping onto her newly-made bed. "That's weird. I didn't make my bed before I left."
Luke puts his hand behind his head. "Um, that was me. I just wanted to be nice."
Ashton makes a face but doesn't say anything else. She's comfortable with other people touching her stuff now. Before she wasn't. Only Carter was allowed to touch her stuff. Ashton shakes her head and pulls her laptop out of her bag, booting it up. It flashes to life and she smiles as she types in the password.
The first thing that comes up is the reminder of Carter's birthday on Tuesday. Her smile fades as the picture of her and him on her 18th birthday flashes on her screen.
How had she forgotten to remove his birthday reminder?
"Ashton," he said, snaking his wiry arms around her waist, "use that picture."
She laughed and leaned back into his chest, feeling the fabric of his undershirt rub against her bare back. He nuzzled his nose into her neck, kissing it softly as he watched her type. She clicked on her picture folder and clicked the picture of her and Carter. He smiled into her neck.
"That's the one," he whispered, his thin lips parted against her hot skin. "You look so perfect, Ashton."
"Carter," she said. "What's going to happen when we go to college?"
"Shhh," he said. "Let's not worry about that. It's your 18th birthday. You're legal now."
She laughed, setting the picture of her and him as her screensaver and then closing the laptop. She snuggled into him, letting her hands find his. He connected their hands, their fingers automatically intertwining. Carter started kissing her neck again, more hungrily this time.
"Carter," she murmured. "Carter."
"What?" he asked quietly.
"We can't," she said. "There's a party downstairs."
"Your party," he reminded her. "And you're up here."
"I want to go swimming," she said, closing her eyes and leaning her head on his shoulder.
His mouth was hovering over hers. "Then let's go swimming."
"In the sky," she murmured.
"Then we'll go swimming in the sky," he promised, placing his mouth on hers. "Me and you. We'll go swimming in the sky."
Ashton always thinks about that moment. He promised her they'd go swimming in the sky together. That was before the accident. Before Carter was gone. Ashton closes her laptop, closing her eyes as well. She leans against her wall, letting the quiet soothe her. Soon, she's sleeping, dreaming.
Dreaming of swimming in the sky.