"Good morning," Jonathan smiled from the chair across from me with a blanket over his lap. "You slept."
I took in a breath and blinked. "Have you been there all night?"
"Do you mean, all morning?" he teased. "But you slept."
"You didn't sleep?" I questioned, pushing myself up to sit, the weariness still lingering despite the few hours of rest.
Jonathan shrugged without answering, but continued to wear a smug grin.
"Oh, don't start thinking you cured me or anything," I said, suddenly realizing what was behind the grin. "Just because I slept for a few hours, it doesn't mean the nightmares have vanished. We'll see if you deserve the pat on the back when I go to bed tonight. Besides, they don't happen every night, and you know that."
"You are really good at this denial thing, aren't you?" he laughed. "You have no idea what's going on until you can't ignore it any longer."
"Yeah," I huffed. "I love not sleeping at night, and just want to prove you wrong."
"That's not what I meant," he grinned wider, but before I could question him, he stood up, leaving the blanket on the chair. "Are you hungry? I have... cereal."
"Thanks, but I should get to Casey's," I returned, standing to stretch my legs with my arms extended above me―feeling the ache in my neck and back. "Your couch isn't very comfortable to sleep on."
"It's not meant to be slept on. I offered you the bed," he shrugged. I didn't respond. I hadn’t exactly been comfortable with that offer.
I picked up my phone and slid on my shoes. I scanned through my missed texts from Casey, and the one response that wasn't actually from me. "Thanks for texting Casey for me last night."
"I didn't want her to worry," he replied, pouring cereal into a bowl. "She thought it was you. I don't think you'll have to tell her where you were."
I nodded, not sure how that explanation would've come out anyway. I still didn't know what I would say if she ended up asking. But then again, Casey wasn't the curious type, so I hoped to avoid the inquiry altogether.
"I have to stop by Rachel's to get my shirt for the game tomorrow," I remembered out loud with a groan, sliding on my jacket.
Jonathan paused, appearing concerned.
"Don't worry," I assured him. "She should've left for work by now. Speaking of which, aren't you going to be late?"
"I'm working from home today," he explained. "You have a game tomorrow?"
"Would it be okay if I watched it? I've never seen you play, and I kinda want to see what the scholarship's all about."
"Umm, sure," I fumbled. "I'll text you where we're playing. I can't remember where it is right now."
I was about to leave when he called, "Emma."
Jonathan leaned back against the island. His dark hair was disheveled but the way the waves twisted, it looked like it was on purpose. His wrinkled t-shirt clung to him, hinting at the broad muscle beneath. Taking in his casual stance against the counter, I could actually picture him in the magazine, and recognized why he drew so much attention.
"I like this," he confessed. "Us. Being able to talk. I've never been able to do it before. Not even with... Sadie. I've needed it... you. And now you're here, and well... thank you."
A chill ran through me when I found myself caught in the depth of his eyes. I blinked away and nodded. "I like this too." My voice came out small and broken as heat spread across my cheeks.
Jonathan smiled. "I'll see you tomorrow then."
"Yeah," I returned with a faint smile. I suddenly wasn't so sure if his coming to see me play was such a good idea. Something felt different this morning―like my vulnerability last night allowed him to get too close, closer than he'd already been. "I'll see you tomorrow."
When I turned onto Decatur Street, I slowed to a crawl, just in case. I came to a sudden stop when her car appeared in the driveway, and quickly put my car in reverse. I huffed in frustration as I backed away, knowing I needed my shirt by tomorrow morning. But the last thing I wanted was another confrontation, or a Twilight Zone conversation where she pretended nothing was wrong.
As expected, Casey didn't think twice about where I'd spent the night. Instead, she went on about the great party I'd missed. I'd only gotten a few hours of sleep on Jonathan's couch, so I was pretty out of it most of the day. She didn't seem to notice.
I had every intention of returning to Rachel's that night, in hopes that she'd be out doing what she did best on a Friday night―but I never made it that far.
"Emma, you can sleep in the guest room," Casey's voice cut through my head. I opened my eyes to find her standing above me with the movie still playing in the background.
"Sorry," I offered. "I'm so pathetic today, I know. I'm just really tired."
"It's okay," Casey returned. "I didn't expect us to go to a party or anything. Besides, I'm pretty tired from last night too. I'll see you in the morning?"
"Yeah," I told her, dragging my feet to the guestroom. My phone chimed as I was about to slide under the covers. I didn't look to see who was calling as I put it to my ear, "Hello?"
"Hi," Evan said from the other end. My heart skipped a beat at the sound of his voice.
"Hi," I returned in joyous relief. "How are you?"
"Good," he responded, sounding a little surprised. Maybe I’d come across a little too happy to hear from him. "I'm at the airport in L.A. for my connecting flight and I wanted to hear your voice. It's been really hard not talking to you."
"You have no idea," I exhaled. "When will you be home?"
"Tomorrow afternoon. Can I see you? I'll come straight from the airport."
"Um, why don't I meet you at your house? Will your parents be home?"
"My mother might be," he considered. "I don't think my father will be around. She mentioned a meeting in DC. I'll see you at my house. I should be there between two-thirty and three."
"That's perfect," I smiled.
"I should've called you, Emma. I'm sorry," he quickly added, the regret in his voice forced my pulse to quicken.
"You needed time," I stated quietly. "I deserved it."
"No. I should have called. That wasn't right, to do that to you. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
When I hung up the phone I was filled with both elation and dread. I missed him so much it ached, but I knew what was going to happen when we saw each other, and I wished it was already over. I couldn't fast forward the inevitable, so I accepted the long and difficult conversation we were about to have and collapsed in bed where exhaustion pulled me into a dreamless sleep.
I left a little early for the game so I could pick up my jersey on the way. I anxiously tapped my fingers on the steering wheel the entire drive, hoping she'd stayed at his place, whoever that might be, or was still passed out.
"Shit," I grunted, when I saw the two cars in the driveway. I pulled up along the street and closed my eyes while gripping the steering wheel. Focused on running in to get my shirt and back out, I didn't bother to remove my keys from the ignition. I wouldn't acknowledge her if she said anything to me.
My heart beat frantically when I approached the front door. I hesitated before opening it, thinking I'd heard her yell. When I didn't hear it again, I continued inside.
Her agonizing cries stole the breath from my lungs. I stared in horror at the large man pounding his fist into my mother's side as she cowered on the floor in front of the couch with her hands over her head. She hollered in pain with each impact, trying to shrink away from his blows without anywhere to go.
"What are you doing?" I yelled, without thinking about anything except making him stop, despite the fact that he had a good five inches on me and looked enraged enough to take down a bull.
"This is none of your business," the guy growled at me. "Get the fuck out of here."
"Emily," my mother gasped. She tried to pull herself up on the coffee table. My mouth opened in a shocked utterance when I saw the blood gushing out of her nose and the swelling enveloping her right eye.
He wasn't about to let her come back up, turning toward her as she stumbled to her feet. He raised his bloodied fist just as I screamed, "No!" The collision spun my mother around, teetering her over the top of the coffee table. It collapsed upon impact. Her crumpled body didn't move, sprawled awkwardly on the splintered wood.
He turned to intercept me when I rushed to her, shoving me out of his way with virtually no effort. I landed hard on my side with a grunt.
"You want to make this your business?" the guy threatened from above me. I shrunk into the floor. He snarled down at me as he breathed heavily through flared nostrils. His black eyes threatened to bore right through me. "Then you're going to get hurt, little girl. This is between me and Rachel, so I'm only going to warn you one last time. Stay the fuck out of it."
I tensed, prepared for him to hit me. But he moved past me, slamming the front door behind him. I scrambled to my knees and slid over to the collapsed coffee table where my mother was starting to moan.
"Mom?" I called to her with tears in my eyes. "Can you hear me?"
She groaned louder and squinted with her good eye. "Emily? Is he gone?"
"Yeah, he's gone," I assured her, tenderly sitting her up. She whimpered with the slightest movement. "Can you get up? We need to get you to the hospital."
"I think I broke my wrist," she cried, holding her left wrist, the one she'd held out to break her fall.
"Easy," I coaxed gently. My voice was steady as I supported her to sit, but my entire body was shaking.
"I'm sorry," she gasped, fresh tears streaming down her face. "I'm so sorry."
"Okay," I consoled, dismissing her pleas. "Now let's see if you can stand." Supporting under her arm, I helped her up.
She was crying uncontrollably by the time we reached the car. I took a deep breath when I sat on the driver's seat and tried to remember how to get to the hospital, needing to remain calm so I could think clearly.
"It's okay," I breathed to myself. "Everything's going to be okay." I flipped my eyes toward my sobbing mother and said it louder for her to hear, "Everything's going to be okay."
Her cries dwindled to spastic breaths and sniffles as we neared the hospital.
"How are you doing?" I asked, afraid to take my eyes off the road, strangling the steering wheel.
"I'm sorry," she choked again.
"Okay," I dismissed anxiously. "But how are you feeling? Can you see out of that eye? Does anything else hurt?"
"I think I'll be fine," she returned in a murmur, wiping the blood from her face with her sleeve covered hand.
"Who was that guy?" I asked, now that she was starting to sound more coherent.
She just shook her head.
"Rachel," I demanded forcefully. "Who was that guy? Why did he do this to you?"
She swallowed audibly and released a quivering breath. "I owe him some money," she whispered faintly.
I pulled my brows together. "For what?"
She wouldn't answer. I didn't ask again.
I tried to remember if I knew what he looked like, for when the police asked. Besides being big and sleazy looking, I couldn't remember anything descript about his face. Then I knew. There was only one reason my mother would owe a guy like that.
"He's your dealer," I concluded out loud. Rachel remained silent. I couldn't stand to even look at her. I clenched my teeth together and stared at the road as the anger built up in my gut, tightening every muscle in my body.
When we arrived at the emergency room entrance, I demanded, "Give me your phone."
"What?" she squeaked. "Why?"
"I'm calling Sharon to pick you up," I told her, my voice edged with fury. "You should probably stay with her anyway until you can fix your mess."
"Emily," she pleaded desperately. "Please don't leave."
"I'm not staying here with you," I snapped coldly, unable to look at her. "I'll go back to the house to pack you a bag, and I'll leave it on the porch for Sharon to pick up."
"Don't," she sobbed, "don't say anything, okay?"
I turned toward her with my face pulled tight in disgust. I couldn't believe she was actually asking me to lie for her. I shook my head in anguished disbelief.
"Please," she begged, "I'm just going to tell them I was robbed and he took off before I could see him." Her eye was practically swollen shut, and congealed blood lined her nose. Her one good eye continued to tear up as she breathed in spasms. She looked horrid. But I couldn't pity her. As she gibbered in front of me, desperate for me to protect her with another of her lies, I loathed her.
I seethed through clenched teeth, "Don't worry. I won't tell the police that your drug dealer beat you because you owe him money. It's none of my business, remember?"
She gasped in a sob and turned from me, carefully letting herself out of the car while leaving her phone on the seat. As soon as the door was closed, I pulled away without looking back.
The impact of what had happened took hold of me as I turned onto the main road and I pressed my lips together to keep them from trembling. The anger kept back the tears, but my body shook despite my efforts.
I parked along a residential street and picked up her phone with an unsteady hand. After leaving a message for Sharon, my phone rang.
I took a deep breath before answering.
"Emma?" Jonathan confirmed when I answered with a strained voice. "Are you okay? Where are you?"
I closed my eyes and grimaced. He was at my soccer game. "Umm... I had to get my shirt," I tried to explain, my voice cracking.
"What happened?" he demanded urgently. "Emma, where are you?"
"I had to bring Rachel to the hospital," I released, trying to remain calm. "Jonathan..." I pressed my lips together. The anger was giving way, and I was about to lose it. I breathed in through my nose to ward off the tears.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah," I exhaled. I took another deep breath and explained, "There was some guy looking for money. He beat her pretty bad."
"What?" Jonathan practically yelled. "Did he hurt you?"
"No, I'm fine. But she's a mess." I bit my trembling lip and the tears escaped.
"Where are you now?" he demanded. "I'm driving back toward Weslyn. Where are you?"
"I'm going back to her house," I explained. "I have to pack a bag so she can stay at Sharon's."
"Emma, I don't think you should go back there."
"He's gone," I told him, wiping my cheeks.
"Don't go in the house until I get there," he instructed firmly before hanging up.
I pulled back on the road and fought for control over the nerves twisting inside of me, tucking everything away as I was so good at doing. I was numb but focused by the time I pulled into the driveway. Jonathan hadn't arrived yet.
The front door was still open from our hasty exit. I scouted the street in search of cars, but none were in sight. I was confident the dealer wasn't coming back.
I walked through the screen door and stood in the foyer, listening. The house remained silent, so I continued up the stairs. I was about to walk into her room, when I thought I heard a board creak. My heart stammered. I turned toward the stairs, but there wasn't anyone there.
I exhaled, realizing I was holding my breath and started toward her door. I caught sight of my open door out of the corner of my eye and froze. Something was wrong. I turned back, my heart racing. Lying on the floor inside my room was a small blue gift box―the gift box that held the necklace Evan gave to me. The necklace that was supposed to be tucked under my clothes in my top drawer.
He had come back.
I raced across the hall. I was shaking my head, yammering, "No, no, no, no," when I slammed into his chest. Rocked backward, I cautiously stepped away while he continued out of my room. He revealed a snarky smirk. My eyes widened, fearing he'd hurt me as he had my mother. My heart thrust against my chest―I braced myself to run. That's when I saw the necklace in his hand.
"Oh no," I uttered in a breath. Without considering the consequences, I lunged toward him and reached for it. He grabbed my hand before I could touch it, shoving me away.
"You should have listened," he grunted. The hardened glare in his dark eyes sent a chill through me. I knew that look. I instinctively began to raise my hands to protect myself, but the punch knocked me to the floor. Pain flooded through my jaw, and my eyes filled with black dots.
I scrambled to my feet, trying to find my focus, needing to reach him before he could make it to the stairs. I pulled at his hand. He turned back around, snatching the necklace out of reach and exclaimed, "You little bitch. What the fuck are you thinking?"
"You can't have it," I cried. "Please, I'll pay you. But you can't take that from me."
He laughed and shoved me hard. I collided with the wall and grunted.
"Who the fuck do you think you are?" he sneered. He swung his arm and back handed me across the head, knocking me to my hands and knees. My head pounded, but I willed myself to get back on my feet. Before I could, his boot crashed into my ribs.
I screamed out and fell to the floor, my arms wrapped around me as I curled into a ball, unable to catch my breath.
"Emma!" I heard from the bottom of the stairs.
I couldn't find my voice to warn him, to tell him to leave. Immobile in my curled position on the floor, I heard scuffling and grunts. I rolled over to see Jonathan shoving the guy against the wall and thrusting his fist into his stomach. The guy buckled over.
I used the wall to help me up, and leaned against it with an arm across my ribs. Every breath was agonizing. I wanted to yell out, but I could only gasp in staggered breaths. I fumbled for my phone, but it wasn't in my pocket. I searched for it on the floor but couldn't find it.
The sparkle of the diamond caught my eye on the floorboards at my feet. I wrapped my fingers around it and clenched it tightly in my fist, feeling the stone digging into my palm.
Jonathan landed a punch to the side of the guy's head, causing him to stagger back. Before he could regain his balance, Jonathan followed with another to his jaw, and the guy teetered over, landing hard on the floor. Jonathan kept a hold of his shirt, keeping him propped up, and slammed his fist into his face. The guy's arms went limp by his sides, but Jonathan was relentless, swinging over and over again.
"Jonathan!" I screamed as blood smeared the man's face. The tendons in Jonathan's neck strained as he slammed his fist into the mangled face, blood spraying out of the mouth and nose. His rage was insatiable.
I staggered over and grabbed the arm that was holding the guy up. "Jonathan!"
Jonathan's head snapped up. His eyes were dark and feral. I didn't recognize him with his lips pulled tight in a hateful sneer. I stumbled back, inhaling sharply.
It took him a moment to focus on me, for his face to soften. The stone disintegrated from his eyes. I stood with my mouth open in abhorrence. His face contorted painfully when he saw the horror on my face.
Jonathan slowly lowered the guy to the floor and stood up, not taking his eyes off me.
"Emma," he breathed desolately. I shook my head, unable to comprehend what I'd just witnessed. I backed away and stared down at the unrecognizable figure on the floor. He wasn't moving. I couldn't even tell if he was breathing. His face was deformed and drenched in blood; he didn't look human.
"Emma, look at me," Jonathan directed calmly, no longer dazed. "Don't look at him, look at me."
I pulled my eyes away from the blood spattered remains on the floor and focused on Jonathan. "Emma, keep looking at me. Are you okay?"
He moved to touch my cheek. "Your face." I pulled back sharply, forcing him to withdraw his blood covered hand. I absently raised my hand to my mouth and winced at its touch. When I pulled it away, my fingertips were covered in blood. At first, I wasn't sure if it was mine. But then I tasted the tang of it in my mouth. I ran my tongue along the cut on the inside of my lip where my teeth had punctured the tissue.
I was too numb with shock to recognize the pain. Everything moved slowly. I couldn't think. I couldn't breathe. I just stood in that spot and stared at Jonathan's concerned, blood speckled face.
"Is he..." I rasped, but couldn't finish the question, my eyes drifting back down to the blood covering the floor.
"Don't look at him." Jonathan stepped toward me to block my view. He guided me to the stairs with outstretched arms, without touching me.
"What did you do?" The intensity in his hardened eyes flashed before me, and I shuddered. "You looked so... angry."
"I'm sorry you had to see that. But he hurt you. And I will never let anyone hurt you.” There was a quiet strength in his voice. "Sit here, okay."
I grabbed the banister and slowly lowered myself onto the top step. I was still stunned, unable to form a cohesive thought. I kept seeing the man’s face explode, and feeling the spray of blood across my cheeks. But what truly disturbed me was the image of Jonathan, so cold and rigid with fury. I smudged the drying blood off my cheek with the back of my hand.
Jonathan sat down beside me and blotted my face with a wet towel. I stared at him blankly. His face was clean and smooth. He appeared calm and alert, although he kept examining me uneasily, like he was afraid I might fall apart.
I pulled back with a quick breath at the touch of the cloth to my mouth. "We'll put some ice on that when we get back.” His brown eyes connected with mine and he spoke to me softly, "Just sit here and look straight ahead, okay?"
I nodded. This didn't feel real. I started to wonder if I was dreaming. I couldn't move. This had to be a dream. But then the pain seeped through my ribs, and the side of my face throbbed. The taste of blood ran over my tongue.
I heard Jonathan shift the unconscious body, then the jangling of keys. I kept my eyes closed as Jonathan brushed past me down the stairs. My entire midsection screamed with every breath. I let the agony writhe through me, desperately needing it to keep me grounded.
"Emma," Jonathan called to me, redirecting my tortured reality. I opened my eyes to find him next to me. "I need you to get in your car. You're going to follow me, okay?"
I searched his assuring face, slowly becoming more alert. "Where are we going?"
"Don't worry about anything. You just need to follow me." His dark eyes beseeched me to trust him, and I nodded.
I pulled myself up and let out a pained breath.
"Are you okay?" he questioned in alarm, putting his hand on my arm to support me. "How bad are you hurt?"
"I'll be alright," I grunted breathily, moving away from him down the stairs. I didn't want him to touch me. The unrelenting rage that had overtaken him still haunted me.
My car wasn't in the driveway. In its place were Jonathan's truck and a dark blue Charger. I looked around in confusion, before locating my car on the street, closer to the neighbor's house on the corner. I slowly made my way to it, panting in pain with each step.
I sat with the engine running and waited, staring straight ahead. Eventually, the Charger pulled in front of me.
I drove behind him entranced, focusing on the license plate with my right arm folded across my ribs, squeezing the diamond into my palm. We pulled into the parking lot of the bar outside of town where we'd picked up Rachel. Even though it was the middle of the day, there were still a few cars in the deserted dirt parking lot.
I watched Jonathan wipe down the handle of the car door before walking over and getting in the passenger side.
"Drive," he ordered. I pulled away and merged back onto the main road.
When the bar disappeared from sight, he offered, "Do you want me to drive?"
I shook my head, needing to concentrate on something other than what we'd just done. We drove in silence until I pulled into the driveway. I shut off the engine and didn't make a move to get out.
"Jonathan, is he dead?" I asked in a whisper, turning my head to look at him.
"No," he assured me. "He needs to go to the hospital, but he's not dead. Someone will find him."
"Will he come after us?"
"No. You don't have to worry about him ever again. I promise." His eyes shone with conviction, and I knew he was confident in his words. I wasn't.
I got out of the car and Jonathan followed me to the house. He reached for the screen door to pull it open for me, and I stopped at the sight of his raw bloody knuckles. "Your hand," I gasped.
"Don't worry about it," he replied dismissively. "We need to get some ice on your face to help the swelling."
I shook my head. "You need to wrap that. I think we have something in the bathroom."
I climbed the stairs with Jonathan behind me and continued to the bathroom without pause, past the blood that still covered the floor. While Jonathan rinsed his hands, I rummaged through the closet and pulled out ointment and gauze bandages.
He blotted his knuckles dry. I gently balanced his hand on my closed fist to inspect the scraped skin that shined with blood. I was about to squeeze the ointment on his knuckles when he pulled it away. "I'll be fine."
"Jonathan," I implored, looking up at him. My words were lost when I realized how close we were.
His dark eyes pulled me in. I couldn't move. He raised his hand, gliding his fingertips across my bruised face. I inhaled with a shiver at his touch. He slowly leaned forward. I held my breath, lost in his penetrating gaze. I closed my eyes just before his lips gently brushed against mine.
I squeezed my hand and the stone cut into me. With a shake of my head, I pulled away, my breath coming back to me in gasps. Jonathan creased his brow in pained confusion. I rushed past him.
"Emma!" he called out as I scurried down the stairs. "Emma, please!" he called again, his voice urgent. I pushed through the door, leaving him behind.