“I’ll be right back,” he assured me. “I’ll find Sara and get us something to drink, okay?” The careful tone of his voice fueled my embarrassment. I still couldn’t look at him as he walked toward the house. I couldn’t believe I let him see me like this, unable to fend for myself. I fumed in disgust at my vulnerability. I didn’t want Evan to think I needed protecting. I pulled back my torment and let the numb blanket envelop me, pushing away the stirred memories, the noise of the crowd, and the trembling that still lay beneath the surface. I stared at the flames licking at the darkness and everything was lost as I sank deeper into nothingness.
“You know it’s raining, right?” Evan asked from the seat next to me. I looked around, snapping back from my empty place. I was the only one sitting in front of the dwindling flames. A steady, cold rain pasted my hair to my face, causing me to shiver. Evan stared at the few defiant flames that remained, ignoring the rain while holding his black camera case.
“Are you going to stop talking to me?” Evan asked quietly.
A smile spread across my face, turning my head toward him. “No.” I started to laugh.
“What?!” he asked, surprised by my reaction. A half-smile crept across his face as he tried to get the joke.
“I get accosted by a drunken bear and completely freak out, humiliating myself, and you‘re afraid I’m not going to talk to you?!” I laughed again.
Evan smiled lightly, still not getting the humor in my explanation.
“Why were you humiliated?” Serious once again.
I shrugged - hugging my knees into my chest, trying to suppress the shivering. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to explain my vulnerability to him. He waited patiently for me to find the words. I took a deep breath.
“I saw the way you looked at me, and I know how I must have come across, reacting like that.” I looked down. “I hate that you keep seeing me at my worst. This really isn’t me.”
“Emma!” Sara hollered from under the deck before Evan could answer. “You’re crazy. Get out of the rain!”
I suddenly realized I was wearing Sara’s cashmere sweater and jumped up to join her.
“Sara, I am so sorry. I completely forgot I had your sweater on.”
“I don’t care about the sweater,” she replied. “What are you guys doing out there? You must be freezing.” Evan joined us under the deck.
“Getting some fresh air,” Evan answered with a smile. He was rubbing his arms, registering the cold.
“You’re a bad influence on her,” Sara scowled at Evan, which turned into a smile. She wasn’t good at being mad - probably as bad at it as I was at delivering my forced smiles.
“Ready to go?” she asked me.
“Where’s Jason?” I asked, not sure if I should be concerned.
“He rode home with one of the football players,” she explained with a twinkle in her eye. I knew I was going to get a good story in the car.
“Let’s walk around the house,” I suggested. “I’d rather not go back inside.”
We ran to Sara’s car, trying to avoid being in the rain as much as we could. When we got in, Sara started the engine and turned on the heat full blast. Evan leaned against my door, remaining in the rain while waiting for me to roll down the window.
He bent down to peer in through the opening. The water ran down his artistically structured face, dripping off the tip of his nose over his shivering blue lips. My breath escaped me as I took in his steel blue eyes.
“Can I call you tomorrow?”
“You can’t actually,” I grimaced. He looked confused. “It’s complicated. I don’t exactly have phone privileges.” I hated to say it out loud, but I didn’t want him to think I was rejecting him.
The questioning look didn’t quite leave his eyes, but he tried to respond understandingly, “Okay, then I’ll see you Monday.”
He lingered a second too long, and I couldn’t breathe again.
“Good night,” I finally exhaled. “Get out of the rain before you freeze to death.” He stood up and casually raised his hand to wave as I rolled up the window. He ran back into the house.
“No way! Was he going to kiss you?” Sara shrieked, breaking my lingering stare. “Emma, I swear if I wasn’t in the car, he would have kissed you.”
“No, he wouldn’t have,” I dismissed her. My heart collapsed at the thought of Evan leaning in just a little closer. I shook it off.
“You need to share details,” she demanded as we pulled onto the road.
“You first,” I insisted.
Sara didn’t hesitate. The entire ride home, she gushed about her time with Jason.
It was dark inside her house when we walked in.
“I think we beat my parents home.”
“What time is it?” I asked, having no idea how much time had passed since we left the house earlier in the evening.
It was earlier than I thought. That meant I was only at the party for a little over an hour. It seemed so much longer. But now that I looked back at it, I didn’t really do much. Evan and I didn’t have a real conversation the whole time we were there. I was too busy trying to avoid being grappled by drunken idiots.
I got ready for bed and scrubbed at the remaining make-up that the rain hadn’t already washed away. If I were caught wearing makeup, I would probably need it to hide what Carol would do to me if she saw any traces of it.
Last year, Sara had given me a few samples of lipsticks she didn’t want. I tried them on, but ended up wiping the colors off with a tissue. When I returned from practice that evening, Carol confronted me with the tissues removed from the bathroom trash with accusations that I was trying to sneak around wearing make-up behind her back after she had already told me it wasn’t allowed. She called me a whore and other derogatory names as she squeezed my cheeks together so tightly in her hand that my teeth ground into the soft tissue until they bled.
So I’d rather have raw skin from scrubbing off the evidence than to face a second round over the make-up issue.
As we lay in the dark, Sara insisted, “You have to tell me what happened with you and Evan tonight.”
II had hoped that Sara would be so lost in her night with Jason that she'd forget all about me, and we could avoid this conversation. No such luck.
I stared into the darkness above me, not certain where to begin.
“I talked to him,” I confessed. I was quiet for a moment.
“Please don’t make me drag this out of you.”
“I found out he’s from San Francisco and that he may move back if he doesn’t like it here.” I added, “I can only hope.”
“What do you mean?” She sounded confused. “It looked like you guys really connected from where I was sitting - you know, his almost kissing you.” My cheeks warmed at the mention of the close proximity of his face to mine when we said good night.
“Sara, I can’t do this,” my voice grew stronger. “I barely talked to him. He spent most of the night rescuing me from drunken hormonal gorillas. It was pretty pathetic.
“I don’t want to like him. I don’t want there to be anymore moments where he may kiss me. I need to stay away from him.”
“I am so confused,” Sara confessed. “I thought we had a plan. And who was hitting on you? Now I feel bad that I wasn’t there.”
“Don’t,” I said with an edge to my voice. “That’s just it. I don’t want to be protected or looked after. I should be so much stronger than to need you or Evan Mathews to stand up for me. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to look at him on Monday.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Sara said quietly. I heard the hurt in her voice. “I know you don’t want me protecting you, you’ve made that clear way before tonight. But I feel bad because I knew how hard tonight was going to be for you, and from the sounds of it, it was pretty horrible. I should’ve been there as your friend, that’s all.”
“But it shouldn’t be horrible, Sara. It was just a stupid party, and I freaked. I could barely function.” I sighed in frustration. I was glad it was dark so she couldn’t see the tears welling in my eyes. I clenched my jaw and swallowed the lump in my throat. I took a calming breath to be rid of the dizzying emotion, while wiping my cheeks dry. Safe again, I turned away from Sara.
“I’m sorry, Sara,” I said softly. “It’s been a long day, and I’m being ridiculous. We have to get up early so I can get home to do my chores. Let’s just get some sleep, okay?”
“Okay,” she whispered.
I was afraid that sleep wouldn’t come easily, but with all that my psyche had fought throughout the day, I was exhausted.
It took me a few blinks to remember where I was when I woke up in the queen bed, with the sunlight beaming behind the shaded skylights. I rolled over to find Sara in the bed across from me, still asleep with the down comforter pulled up around her. She groaned as the alarm beeped to wake us so that I could get home in time to do my weekend chores.
She grumbled, flopping her hand down on the snooze button. She revealed her blue eyes reluctantly, peering over at me with her head still on her pillow. “Hey.”
“Sorry you have to get up so early,” I offered, with my head propped up by my elbow.
“I know how it is,” she replied with stretched arms above her head. “Em, I’m really sorry I bailed on you last night.”
I shrugged, not wanting to think about it. “It’s not like I’ll be going to another party any time soon.”
“True. So, Evan, huh? This is really happening, isn’t it?” Sara ran her fingers through her long hair as she sat up in the bed, propping a pillow behind her.
“Not really,” I contradicted. “I mean, I’m talking to him, or was. Who knows what he’ll think of me after last night.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s still interested. Please don’t give up on him. I don’t know all that happened last night, but I still think he’s good for you. Give him a chance. Try to be friends, or at least use him as an emotional punching bag. He seems to be able to handle the backlashes that you can’t unleash on anyone else.” She said it like being reprimanded by me was a privilege. She studied my face with a soft smile to make sure I understood.
I returned a half smile, trying to digest her words.
Knowing I wasn’t going to say anything, she flipped back the covers and swung her feet to the floor. “Well let’s get you back to hell before the devil realizes you’re not home.” It would have been funny, except that it was too close to the truth for me to laugh.
When I walked in the back door, the house was strangely quiet. With George’s truck missing from the driveway, I guessed he and the kids were getting the Saturday morning donuts and coffee. That meant she was here, somewhere - my stomach dropped. I focused on getting to my room without having to see her.
Just outside my door, I was abruptly stopped in my tracks with a sharp pain shrieking through my head. I winced as her claw dug deeper into the fistful of my hair, tugging my head back so that my neck snapped awkwardly, forced to face the ceiling. She hissed in my ear, “Did you think I wouldn’t find out that you went out last night? What did you do, screw the entire football team?”
With an unexpected amount of force, she thrust my head forward without giving me a second to resist. The front of my skull collided with the doorframe. A thunderous bolt shot through my head as the hall blurred around me. Black dots filled my eyes as I attempted to focus. Before I could find center, her vise grip tore the hair from my scalp and drove my head into the hard wood again. The corner of the frame connected with the left side of my forehead. The stinging burn above my eye gave way to a flow of warmth that ran down my cheek.
“I regret every second you’re in my house,” Carol growled with contempt. “You’re a worthless pathetic tramp, and if it wasn’t for your uncle, I would have shut the door in your face when your drunken mother abandoned you. It says a lot when she can’t even stand you.” I slid down the wall, collapsing on the floor with my bags by my side. Something landed on my knees. I made out my navy blue soccer jersey from Thursday’s game crumpled on my lap.
“Clean yourself up before they see you, and get rid of the stench in the basement. You’d better be done with your chores and out of my sight by the time I get back from grocery shopping,” she threatened before disappearing.
I heard the truck pull into the driveway and the doors closing, followed by the excited voices nearing the back door. I didn’t want them to see me either, so I clumsily tossed my bags through the open door of my room and pushed myself to my feet. I stumbled into the bathroom with the support of the wall, as I heard Leyla announce, “Mom, we have donuts!”
I pressed the shirt against the left side of my head, trying to stop the bleeding as the cut pulsed under my hand. My head pounded as I tried to regain control of my balance. The sensation that I was about to lose consciousness seized me. I gripped the sink, fighting to focus, as I took deep even breaths. A minute passed before I was able to stand up straight. The dizziness subsided but the claw of pain dug into my head.
I slowly let up pressure. The side of my face was covered with blood that ran down my neck, seeping into the collar of my turtleneck. I couldn’t quite tell where the opening was. I took a few tissues and exchanged them with the shirt so I could run the shirt under cold water.
I wiped the drying blood from my face with the damp jersey and revealed the small incision above my left eyebrow. It wasn’t very big, but it didn’t want to stop bleeding. I applied more pressure with the shirt as I searched in the medicine cabinet for bandages. I pulled out two butterfly bandages and applied them to the gash, pulling the sides together so it could heal - hopefully leaving a minimal scar.
In the center of my forehead, along my hair line, was a large lump that was already turning purple. I couldn’t bring myself to touch it – the unwavering pain was making my eyes water. I knew I needed to put ice on it but couldn’t figure out how to do that without being seen.
I leaned against the wall across from the mirror and closed my eyes. I couldn’t hold back the tears that rolled down my cheeks. I struggled to maintain a steady breath so I wouldn’t cave in to the full out cry that the lump in my throat yearned for. The images of what happened flashed through my head. I didn’t hear her come up behind me. She was obviously waiting for me.
As much I tried to be invisible, she was inescapable and her wrath was crushing. I wanted nothing more than to destroy her as I stared into the mirror at my seeping eyes, aglow with fury.
I looked down at the bloody jersey in my hand. Her blitz attack had nothing to do with the football game, or my dirty laundry; it had everything to do with me. I knew all I had to do was make one phone call, or walk into the school psychologist’s office and utter one sentence, and this would all be over.
That’s when I heard the squeal of laughter in the kitchen from Leyla, accompanied by a chuckle from Jack as she said something to make them laugh. It would be over for them too, but in a way that would damage them forever. I couldn’t ruin their lives. Carol and George truly loved them, and I wouldn’t take them from their parents. I swallowed hard, determined to compose myself, but the tears refused to stop.
I opened the cabinets under the sink and pulled out the cleaning supplies; with my lips quivering and hands shaking, I scrubbed the tub, swallowing against the sobs. The built up pressure from keeping the cries contained infuriated the pain in my head. My whole body ached.
I was back to my numb, emotionless state by the time I finished cleaning the sink. I blankly stared at the water running down the drain, rinsing away the chemicals and blood. My raging thoughts were quiet.
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” I heard Carol announce, closing the door behind her. The kids were watching TV in the living room. I couldn’t hear George.
I looked at myself in the mirror and mindlessly wiped the remaining dried blood from around the bandages before I opened the bathroom door. I stepped into the hall to retrieve the broom and mop from the hall closet when George rounded the corner. He stopped and his eyes widened. But his shocked expression quickly dissolved.
“Bump your head?” he asked casually.
“That’s what I get for walking while reading,” I droned, knowing he would convince himself of anything except for the truth.
“You should put some ice on it,” he recommended.
“Mmm,” I agreed and walked back into the bathroom to complete my task.
After my chores were completed, I returned to my room to find a bag of ice waiting for me on my desk.
I gently put the bag of ice on the lump and watched Jack and Leyla chase after George in the backyard through my window – sworn to silence in my hell.
I awoke in a panic around midnight. I stayed pressed to my pillow, my eyes fervently searching the room. I was breathing heavily; my shirt was damp with sweat. I tried to detach myself from the nightmare that had awoken me. It was hard to push away the urgency of the dream that had me pinned beneath the water, drowning. I took in a deep breath, confirming that I was still alive as the air passed easily through my lungs. They weren’t burning for oxygen as they had been in my dream. I had a hard time falling asleep after that. Sleep finally found me just before the sun rose.
I was awoken by a hard knock on the door. “Are you going to sleep all day?” the voice barked from the other side.
“I’m up,” I mustered in a rasp, hoping she wouldn’t come in. I looked at the digital clock next to my bed that read 8:30. I knew I had to take a shower before nine o’clock or do without. I slowly sat up with the throbbing pain, a reminder of my living nightmare. I needed to find a way to ice it again so the lump would be gone by the time I went to school tomorrow. I knew there was nothing I could do about the dark purple bruise. Thankfully the area around the cut wasn’t bruised. Sara’s new hairstyle was going to come in handy with covering up most of it.
I gathered my clothes together and slipped into the bathroom without being seen. Washing my hair was more painful than I anticipated. I hadn’t realized how sore the back of my head was from her iron grip of my hair. I felt blood scabbed over where some of the hair had been forcefully removed. I was so focused on the contusion that the back of my head didn’t register until now. I gingerly used my fingertips to rub the shampoo into the front of my hair, but it still felt like a form of torture. I turned off the water before the knock and proceeded to dry off and get dressed. After gently drying my hair with a towel, I discovered that brushing my hair was worse than washing it. Tears filled my eyes with each stroke of the brush. There was no way I was going to be able to blow it dry. Reluctantly, I made the decision not to wash my hair the next day despite how atrocious I knew it would look after sleeping on it. I wasn’t willing to go through the pain again.
“Does she know about this afternoon?” I heard Carol ask George from the kitchen as I sat at my desk engrossed in my Trigonometry homework.
“Yeah, I told her yesterday,” he replied. “She’s going to the library and will be back for dinner.”
“And you believe she’s going to the library?” she asked doubtingly.
“Why wouldn’t she?” he questioned.
I didn’t hear a response from Carol.
“I’ll be back around one,” she finally said. Then the back door opened and closed.
“Want to go outside and play with Emma?” George asked the kids.
“Yeah,” they screamed in unison.
“Emma,” George bellowed through the closed door, “do you mind taking the kids outside?”
“Be right there.” I grabbed my fleece jacket and was greeted warmly by jumping, cheering kids.
The rest of my day was actually fairly pleasant. I kicked the soccer ball around in the postage stamp backyard with Leyla and Jack. George and Carols’ house was modest, puny compared to Sara’s. The section of town we lived in was typical middle America, but compared to the Pleasantville of the rest of Weslyn, it might as well have been the other side of the tracks.
I rode my bike to the library while George and Carol took the kids to the movies. I spent the remainder of the afternoon hidden in the stacks completing my assignments or in the computer room typing my English paper. I avoided human interaction at all cost, fearful of the reaction I’d receive at the sight of me. I finished with a few minutes to spare before I had to start home, so I called Sara on the pay phone.
“Hi!” she exclaimed, a little too overzealous for someone I had just seen the day before. “How are you calling me?”
“I’m at the library, on the pay phone.”
“Oh! I’ll be right there.”
“No,” I blurted before she could hang up the phone. “I’m leaving in a minute, but I wanted to prepare you for when you pick me up tomorrow.”
“What happened?” Sara asked with concern, almost panic.
“I’m okay,” I calmly assured her, trying to downplay her reaction. “I fell and hit my head, so I have a bandage and a little bruise. It’s really no big deal.”
“Emma! What did she do to you?!” Sara yelled with a mix of fear and anger in her voice.
“Nothing, Sara,” I corrected. “I fell.”
“Sure you did,” she said quietly. “Are you really okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. I have to go, but I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Okay,” Sara replied reluctantly, before I hung up the phone.
8. Bad Luck
I woke up to the same routine as any other morning, until I looked in the mirror – reminded that there was nothing routine about my life. I took in my nightmare of a hairstyle and knew there was no way I could get away with not washing and drying it. I was already going to draw attention - I didn’t need to look like I’d slept on the streets as well.
My head still throbbed but the golf ball had significantly reduced to being almost flush with my forehead. I was able to tolerate showering and brushing my hair, and my eyes only watered slightly when I dried it. Maybe I would be able to survive today after all.
Then I saw Sara’s dropped jaw when I slid into the car. Sara didn’t say anything to me, and I couldn’t read her expression with her oversized sunglasses covering most of her face. She handed me a bottle of water and aspirin. Then again, maybe today was going to be one of the longest days of my life.
“Thank you,” I said as I dumped a couple pills in my hand and swallowed them down with several large gulps of water. I tried to act natural, despite the tension.
She barely glanced at me. I flipped the visor down to examine my cover-up in the mirror, trying to figure out what was making her so withdrawn. My bangs were swept across my forehead to conceal my bruise, and the bandages were barely noticeable under the fan of hair.
“Okay,” I demanded. “Why aren’t you talking or looking at me?”
“Emma,” she breathed in exasperation, “look at you!”
“What?” I defended, glancing back up at the mirror. “I think I did a pretty good job of covering it up.”
“That’s what I mean.” Her voice was shaky. It sounded like she was going to cry. “You should never have to cover anything up. I know you won’t tell me what happened, but I know you didn’t fall. Will you at least tell me what it was about?”
“What does it matter?” My voice was small, not anticipating the strength of her reaction. I wasn’t expecting her to act like nothing happened, but I didn’t want her to cry.
“It matters to me,” she choked. I watched her blot her eyes with a tissue under her glasses.
“Sara, please don’t cry,” I pleaded. “I’m okay, I swear.”
“How can you be okay with this? You aren’t even angry.”
“I’ve had the weekend to get past it,” I admitted. “Besides, I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to let her get to me. I’m not okay with this,” I said pointing to my head, “but what other choice do I have? I’ll deal with it. So please don’t cry. You’re making me feel horrible.”
“Sorry,” she murmured.
We pulled into the parking lot, and she slid off her glasses, blotting her eyes while looking in the rearview mirror.
“I’m okay,” she breathed, trying to produce a smile.
“How bad does it look? Be honest.”
“You actually did a decent job hiding it,” she admitted. “I’m having a hard time because I know the truth.” And then again, she didn’t know the half of it.
“If anyone says anything, because I know they will, tell them I slipped on the wet floor and hit my head on the coffee table.” She rolled her eyes at my lie.
“What, do you have a better one?” I countered.
“No,” she sighed. “Keep the aspirin. I know you’ll need them.”
“Ready?” I asked tentatively. I didn’t like seeing Sara upset, especially over me. The anger and sadness were in complete contrast to her personality. It was uncomfortable to witness.
She released a heavy breath and nodded.
I received a few questions about my injury from some of my soccer teammates and other brave gossipers, but most people just stared. I should’ve been used to the stares after Friday’s disaster. I wished I invisible once again - or at least ignorant of the gossip that was always happening around me.
I found my way to English class without having to explain my fall to more than two or three more people. I sat in my usual seat, pulling out my paper to pass in.
“Does it still hurt?” Evan asked from the chair next to mine. At that time, Brenda Pierce approached the seat she’d been sitting in since the first day of class and scowled to see it occupied. He smiled politely and shrugged.
“Well, there’s one person who’s not going to like you,” I said wryly, trying to avoid the question.
“She’ll get over it,” Evan stated with little interest. “So, do you still have a headache?”
I drew my eyebrows together and reluctantly admitted, “I took some aspirin this morning. So, it’s better, as long as I don’t turn my head too quickly.”
“That’s good,” he said casually. Everyone else had asked what happened; no one bothered with how I was feeling – until Evan.
“How was the rest of your weekend?” Evan whispered.
“Okay,” I answered without looking over at him.
Ms. Abbott began with the class discussion, handing out our newest reading assignment after we passed in our papers. She also handed us a short story which she allowed us to begin reading in class after she’d given us our writing assignment.
“Are we talking, or not?” Evan whispered when Ms. Abbott stepped out of the room.
“We are,” I glanced at him, confused. “Why?”
“I can never figure you out. I want to make sure I’m on the same page today.”
“I’m not much of a talker,” I confessed, turning back to our assigned reading.
“I know.” His answer drew my attention - he had that amused grin spread across his lips.
I wasn’t in the mood to inquire about his antagonizing grin and didn’t give him another glance for the remainder of class. I wasn’t allowing myself to be dragged into the mystery that was Evan Mathews, not today. I just wanted to get through the day with as little attention paid to me as possible. I wished it could have been that easy.
Evan escorted me to Ms. Mier’s Art class. He didn’t try to talk to me. But he’d inspect me with a concerned flip of his eyes every so often as I walked blankly through the halls, not looking at him or anyone else. I had to sever my emotional cord to escape the anger and shame that silently slithered through my head, disconnecting myself from the stares and whispers that followed me down the hall.
“Today you are going to take a walk around the school property and snap pictures of scenes that inspire you for the calendar entry next month,” Ms. Mier announced. “The final pieces will be displayed along the wall of the main entrance where the students and faculty can view them. A vote will decide the twelve pieces to make the calendar. The artistic creation that has the most votes will also be the cover of the calendar. Does anyone have any questions?”
The class was silent. Ms. Mier asked a couple of students to pass out the cameras from the storage cabinet.
“Are you submitting an entry?” I asked Evan, who was standing behind me with his own camera in his hands. I glanced back to catch him raise his eyebrows, surprised to hear my voice.
“I’ll submit a photograph.”
“Please meet back in the class in forty minutes to return the cameras,” Ms. Mier instructed.
The class emptied into the halls, heading toward the stairs that led to the back of the school. I opted to take the side stairs that let out at the football field and tennis courts.
“Do you mind if I come with you?” Evan asked from the top of the stairs. I looked up at him from the middle of my descent and shrugged with indifference. Evan followed me in silence.