Dakota didn’t say much when he first came out of the prison that housed his father. I asked him if something was wrong, but he didn’t reply to the question. Instead, he handed me a large bundle of what looked to be letters, held together with a single band of rubber.
The entire drive back, we took turns reading the letters his sister left behind. When I was driving, he would read them out loud. Whenever he took the wheel, I would be the one reading them to him. We didn’t get through half of the pile, only a quarter of the way through. The letters weren’t short, one paged explanation about her day. Most envelopes enclosed up to five or ten pages, all covered in writing-front and back.
I stared at the sheet before me now, squinting at the words in bright blue ink. This letter, other than the ones before, was jotted down in a sloppier style-unlike her usual smooth cursive penmanship.
Daddy, don’t worry about me. She wrote. I’m doing fine. They aren’t bothering me anymore. I got better at defending myself. I don’t eat lunch in the cafeteria all that much. It helps in the long run. I get to catch up on my homework in the library. There’s a lot of new books I’ve been reading. You wouldn’t like any of them. They’re all romances. I guess I like them the most because they really get me out of my head. It lets me escape out of this world of mine, just for a few pages at a time...
I was starting to feel sorry for the girl the more I read. She described the bullying she endured at Crescent Hight in great detail. She was locked inside of the restroom, held up inside with girls laughing on the other side. She described being pushed into the school pool, fully dressed and unwilling to go in.
Dakota told me how she had a history of being teased for her hefty weight. She spoke of a kind boy who didn’t partake in the hellish treatment. He unlocked her from the restroom. And the day she was dripping wet and shivering, he handing her a clean towel and change of clothes. She never said his name, not once. But when she wrote about him, she boxed the paragraph in tiny hearts.
At one point, Dakota brought out his wallet, showing me a set of four pictures of them. She had the same captivating blue eyes. She didn’t inherit his raven black hair. Her blond hair fell in soft waves, going past her shoulders and out of the frame of the picture.
“We went to a carnival one summer. I didn’t want to go into the photo booth, but she convinced me anyway,” he said, “I thought she looked great in her pink sweater. I bought it for her as a birthday gift. That was almost a week before this picture. The day was going well. Until it was ruined by Maven and his friends. They spotted us and started harassing us the entire time, making oinking noises at her.”
“What did you do?”
“She wouldn’t let me deal with them at the moment. Diana never liked it when I got into fights because she knew how much stress that put on our mother. I wasn’t done with Maven though. So, after I dropped her off, I waited at home until it got dark. I texted a few of my friends, asking around if they knew where Maven was, and they said they spotted him at the Smell. By that time, I got into my car and decided to pay him a visit.”
I didn’t have to ask where this was going. I could recollect what Hunter told me last year at my grandmother’s house. He told me Dakota cut Maven off the road and began beating him to a pulp. It made sense why he did it, seeing everything that led up to that moment. Hunter painted Dakota as a lunatic for what he did. If only Hunter knew what got to that point.
I wasn’t saying this to justify the attack. I wasn’t one to side with violence. If I had a say, I wouldn’t ever resort to hurting someone. The only time I did see that as the only option were in dire situations that required self-defense.
“I’m not finding anything new in this,” Dakota snickered, gripping the steering wheel hard. “We’ve gone through, what? Like six of these letters so far and none of this is new info. Not for me at least.”
“Relax,” I soothingly patted his thigh. “We just got them. We haven’t made a substantial dent in the pile yet. Let’s make more progress before we get to the point of giving up.”
“I didn’t say I gave up.”
“You’re not being patient either.” I noted, collecting the letter off my lap. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
“We?” his eyes sparkled and latched on to my hand, tightening his hold on me with a loving squeeze. “You really want to go through all of it with me? Even after we get back to Crescent Heights?”
“Yes,” I nodded without a pause. “I want to be here for you through the entire process. You don’t have to go through this alone.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much, Silvia.” We came to a slow stop. Traffic was building up on the freeway. Seeing this as his only chance, Dakota craned his neck to kiss me, grinning against my lips. “I love you.”
“I love you.” I muttered into his mouth.
I couldn’t help but smile, too. Nothing could make me let go of his hand, intertwined in mine. I held on harder if anything, hoping for the drive to never end. I never knew it was possibly to fall in love with someone for a second time, but here I was, coming to my knees in adoration.
Two weeks passed since our trip to central California. Dakota and I stayed close. I lost count of how many times I came over to his house after school, looking through old diaries and reevaluating the letters we got from his dad.
Dakota’s under eyes got darker. His room’s unclean state told me that his attention was glued on finding answers instead. Dakota’s hair was an unruly mess, sticking up in all direction like a maniac.
He tugged at his wrinkled black shirt, scratching his scalp with his eyes fixated on the diary, dangling a blue highlighter above the page. With the number of blue streaks on the sheet and side notes he added in, I could see this wasn’t the first time he reread this particular portion.
In order to cover my ass for being here, I had to lie to my dad once more. Lately, my falsehood was that I was busy at study hall. Dad didn’t question my desire to focus on school more. He encouraged it even, giving me extra money to pay for food.
Second semester didn’t matter so much, considering I passed all of my courses last term and had a good feeling that I’d do well this semester. I had already submitted my applications to my top five universities.
I applied to Syracuse University, two New York public colleges, and two California state universities. One was in San Francisco and the other was located in Long Beach. I didn’t care so much if I got into either of them. If it came down to it, I’d take the school in New York before anything else.
“Which schools did you apply to?” I asked Dakota. I shifted, repositioning myself on the ground. I rested both my elbows on the plush carpeted floor in his bedroom, fixing the pillow under my belly. “I remember you said you wanted to go to NYU before we...”
“Broke up,” he finished for me, darting his gaze up to me slowly.
I didn’t know why it hurt so much to say it. To think of that time we spent apart, it forced me into a realm of painful emotions and what I went through on the last day of school, and even worse, at my birthday party.
“Yeah, I applied to NYU, USC, UCLA, Rhode Island School of Design, and Columbia University. And just for kicks, I sent an application to Princeton.”
“Just for kicks?” I huffed.
“Yeah, there’s no way you’re going to see me move to New Jersey. It’s New York City’s dumping ground. I just wanted to see if I could get in or not.”
“New York City dumps garbage into Pennsylvania and Virginia, too,” I added on, “but yeah, I’ve heard people call New Jersey that before. It’s not so bad. I have an aunt that lives down there and I always liked going there to visit her.”
Any excuse to get away from my drug addict mom was great. I didn’t tell that to him-despite wanting to.
“You’re amongst the few.”
I rolled my eyes. Dakota found any reason to hate. Rather than trying to change his mind on New Jersey, I said, “Back to what you said before, though. Every school you submitted to isn’t easy to get into. They’re A+ schools.”
“It won’t be too hard with my GPA. I have a 4.4.”
I coughed on my own spit. “You must be a shoo-in for valedictorian.”
“Yeah, I am. I’m up against a girl name Gina Yoon. We have the same GPA. Last winter, my counselor told me they’re going to look beyond the .4 and see who has the highest.”
“Did they tell you when you’re going to get the news?”
“I was told before spring break I would be informed if I made the cut or not.” He informed. “Would you be mad if I asked what your grade point average is?”
“I’m a B average student,” I simply stated, not giving him a clear answer. Because of our past arguments, I still wasn’t comfortable talking about my grades with Dakota. I was close to a 3.5. If I did better in my foreign language and mathematics class, I could end the school year off with one or two decimals higher.
“That’s not too bad,” he flipped the page, “You applied to B+ schools. You should get in. Especially because Syracuse is a sports-focused school, they might want you on their track team.”
“Yeah, that’s what my dad said, too.” I recalled, crossing my fingers. “Hopefully I do get in. That’s my number one dream school.”
He tilted his head, moving his attention back to me. “Why is that?”
“I really love the campus. I visited it with my brother when I was younger. He wanted to go there, but never got the chance. I like their sports division and the classes they offer.”
“They’re also a huge party school.”
“So I’ve been told.” I mused. “But I don’t care about that.”
“Do you know what you’re studying yet?”
“I put undecided when I was applying. I have no clue what I want to do there.”
“Maybe you should take a gap year before jumping into a college education. The last thing you want to do is spend a lot of money, taking classes you don’t need. And isn’t Syracuse a private university? I bet the prices are hiked up as fuck.”
“They’re tuition is over forty thousand,” I noted.
Compared to the nearest California state university, going to Syracuse was almost seven times the amount.
“My counselor was grilling me about that before the semester ended.” I sighed, rising up to a sitting position. I sat with my knees close to my chest, wrapping my arms around my legs. “I’m hoping by the time summer comes around I have that straightened out.”
“That’s coming up sooner than you think. It’s almost March, Silvia.” He paused, drawing out the words more as he said it again. “It’s...almost March. We have a little over three more months of school left till graduation.”
I fell forward, diving my head into his side. “Please stop reminding me.”
He twisted his body around, allowing me to move in closer and propping me atop his chest. He held my hair back, softly grazing his hands down my neck and kissing my forehead. Dakota made a circle of kisses around my face, stopping right before my lips.
“Hi.” I whispered.
“Hey,” he smirked. “Do you wanna get out of here? We’ve been losing our minds over this. I feel like such a shitty boyfriend. All we’ve done these last two weeks is-”
I didn’t let him finish, covering his mouth with my palm. “Don’t. Any time we spend together is never wasted. It doesn’t matter what we do. I love any moment with you.”
He was so different. We were so different. The time we spent together last semester was full of stress and chaos. I never got a chance to enjoy a day with him without it ending in a big fight. It wasn’t like we didn’t come across disputes anymore. We did, but they were hardly as nasty as they were before. Things had changed.
I was cautious with what I said, and so was he. He didn’t purposely try to provoke me the way he used to. We weren’t perfect, but we were trying, and that was the crucial part. I wouldn’t stop trying with Dakota, working for a better future for the both of us. I wanted him my life-no matter what it took. I’d do anything in the world to make this beautiful boy smile for me.
“I want to take you out.” He mused, combing my hair out of my face. “Before it’s too late.”
I shook my head as a wave of heat slammed into my heart. Sadness swept me into like a storm, swallowing me under an umbrella of gloom. “It’s never too late. Why say it like that?” I got up off of him. “You’re saying that like we won’t see each other after graduation. After the summer.”
“Silvia,” he cooed, brushing my cheek, “I didn’t mean it like that. But we don’t know which schools we’re going to yet. I can’t promise that we’ll both be going to schools on the east coast. What if I pick UCLA or USC?”
He cracked a lopsided grin. “Yes, I’m aware.”
“I’d do everything in my power to get to you.”
He cupped my face with both hands. “And so will I. I didn’t say I wouldn’t. I just want to make the most of the time we have left.”
My gaze dropped to the ground, but it didn’t stay there for long. Dakota gently brought my eyes back to him. “Please don’t be like this, Silvia. I didn’t mean to say it like that. Please don’t be sad.”
“I don’t know. It wouldn’t be the first time you broke up with me.”
He reeled back. “I didn’t want to break up with you that day, Silvia. I was told to.”
“Segg told you to.”
“You still haven’t told me everything you did for them,” I reminded him.
He released me, scooting backwards on the carpet to his cell phone. It was charging at his bedside. He pulled off the cord and returned to me, unlocking his phone and handing it over. “This is Heath’s phone number. He said he’s still going through Pierson’s conversations, trying to see if there’s a way into Finn’s computer by spreading a verse through an email-making it look like it came from Pierson. I’m not sure where he is in the recovery process. But if you want to know, contact him. I’d rather he gave the information to you first instead of filtering it in through me.”
“You don’t think I’d trust you.”
“I didn’t say that. I want you to know first. If you’re unhappy with what you find, you can decide then and there-without me present-if you want to continue this relationship or not.”
I swallowed down the lump forming in my throat. “I’m not leaving you.”
“Don’t say that until you know the full extent of what I did and when I did it,” he mused. “Now, before we do anything else, let’s go out for lunch. I’m sure you’re hungry.”
"Starving.” I rubbed my stomach. “Where do you want to go?”
He pecked my nose. “Anywhere you want to go.”
It wasn’t till the last few days of February when Heath arrived at my door step unannounced with his laptop tucked under his arm.
It had been so long since my talk with Dakota about what he did with Segg. I had forgotten that he warned me of a visit from Heath. I hadn’t gotten around to texting his friend, more so out of fear of what answer I’d get back. I wasn’t ready yet. But now, I had no choice. Here Heath was, standing on my doorstep, with a grim expression on his face.
I opened the door wider, checking the space beyond his shoulder to see if my boyfriend was in his car. He wasn’t. “Uh, hey, Heath. Are you looking for Dakota?”
“I’m not here for him. I’ve got something I want you to see.”