Sophomore year came round quickly. The remainder of her freshman year had passed her by in a numb haze, mainly spent hunkering down over her books and making up for lost time. She had taken to running to help re-focus her brain, surprising herself by sticking to it. Her grades had improved, though she expected Mr Hall was secretly more impressed with her for her nightly runs. She had persuaded Hannah to go with her once, but she had got shin splints after half an hour and has subsequently threatened to divorce April if she ever suggested it again.
She had settled into an effortless, easy friendship with George, the two of them even opting to stay in their small double room for sophomore year. George's friends accepted her and Hannah into their little group after a short period of awkwardness, all of them usually meeting up for lunch. She no longer found the perfect posse so perfect after getting to know them a bit, all of them revealing some insecurities or flaws of their own, making her more accepting of her own.
Occasionally, the boys would join them at their table, and she would sit opposite Rich smiling sweetly whilst imagining lunging across the table and stabbing him in the eye with a fork. Worse were the times Jackson would sit down, forcing them to studiously ignore each other, everyone else pretending the awkwardness wasn't hanging over them like a dark cloud, tension so thick it left them all exhausted afterwards. She found it easier to pretend she didn't care than to admit his presence was killing her. Eventually she did care less, her physical pain eased, her mind no longer eager to return to thoughts of him. Eventually he stopped being the most important thing in her life.
Her second year was easier, her new group of friends making her blend in to school life more smoothly. Her classmates got used to her eagerness to answer teachers' questions, her ramblings in class, her sometimes too-perky attempts at conversation. She felt accepted, her confidence growing as the year progressed. The whispers that had started after her post-Jackson melt down had died down quickly, people moving on to juicer gossip after a while. She would still hear his name on other girls lips, eyes shining bright with infatuation as they cooed to their friends, giggling loudly, fluttering their lashes. She would mostly ignore them, suppressing pangs of sharp pain.
October chill was already settling into the old brick buildings at Hartwell as April was walking back from the library one night with Hannah.
"That guy Ed is always following you around," she half-whispered, gesturing behind them.
April quickly glanced back at the tall, lanky boy ambling a few steps behind them. Noticing her eyes on him he quickly scurried away in the opposite direction, causing Hannah to giggle loudly.
"Oh no, poor puppy, you scared him off!"
April shook her head at Hannah, trying to suppress her own giggles.
"He's cute though..." Hannah said, implication thick in her voice, willing her to move on.
"I guess," she shrugged.
She started hanging out with Ed after that, a softly spoken boy from her physics class. He was awkward, unable to control his long body, but sweet and funny. He had trouble sitting still, constantly vibrating with nervous energy. He was popular with the other boys for his searing impressions of the faculty, and he was constantly in trouble for boyish pranks. He had wrapped another boy's room in newspaper, covering every inch of the room, wrapping up every pencil, every book, even every pin in the corkboard and the posters they were holding up. He had snuck into the staff room before break and stolen all the doughnuts, handing them out to his dorm buddies like he was Robin Hood giving to the poor. He'd smuggled in a pellet gun which had caused great excitement for about two hours before it had been confiscated, he'd shaved the head of one of the younger boys once, giving him a Britney Spears with a combover. He'd been suspended for a week after breaking into the dining hall one night and painting in big red letters "Food, glorious food!" along one wall. He was full of confidence and bravado around the other boys, but April made him nervous, unsure of himself.
At first she found him refreshing, full of energy and always making her laugh. Hannah was excited for her, encouraging her to see where it might lead. She slowly caved, letting him in little by little, silently aware that he was more invested than her.
She was confounded by the way he looked at her, the compliments he gave her. Still not comfortable in her own skin, she couldn't fathom his infatuation with her. He told her that her hair was beautiful, her eyes amazing, her body stunning, and it all sounded like exaggerations to her. She'd managed to steal some tricks from George and her posse on taming her hair, so granted her hair was more polished these days. Her eyes were the same as they always had been, and her body too she figured. But he insisted, and she could see honest admiration in his expression.
She scrutinised her reflection in the bathroom mirrors before going to bed at night, and noticed little changes she hadn't before. Her body had grown softer over the summer holidays, and possibly a little longer too. Her hips were a little wider, more rounded. Her breasts too, pearkier than before and definitely bigger. Her legs stronger and leaner from all the running, even her arms were more toned. She blushed at the thought that Ed had been staring so intently at her, eyes roaming all over her body. She still didn't trust his assurances.
She had been close to Ed for a few months before she eventually made up her mind. He was so sweet with her, open about his feelings for her and it was clear he wanted her to return them. Occasionally she'd hear Jackson's name mentioned in connection with other girls, and recently the same name had come up more and more frequently. It seemed he was going out with Nikki, a short, cute, dark-haired girl in the year above. She tried not to dwell on it, not allowing herself to feel more than she should. Jackson had never been hers in the first place, she felt like she wasn't entitled to be upset about it. There really was no reason for her to keep Ed at arm's length any more.
When they met up that night she finally told him she was ready, and he had been so happy, swooping her into his arms, hugging her tightly before tentatively kissing her. She had kissed him back, but as she struggled to fall asleep that night she had realised it had been a mistake. No matter how hard she tried to like him as much as he liked her it just didn't quite feel right. She couldn't help comparing that kiss to all the kisses she'd had before. Where Ed's kisses had been sweet and soft, Jackson's had been consuming and hungry. Ed's arms had been long and thin, holding her gingerly, Jackson's hard and strong, his whole body embracing hers, meeting her at every point. Ed had left her feeling giddy, thrilled that he had been so happy to finally be with her. Jackson had left her feeling...everything. Unable to move, breathe or think in his presence, she knew that what she had felt for Jackson had run so much deeper. She would always be comparing Ed to Jackson, and it wasn't fair on Ed.
The next day she braced herself and told Ed that she had changed her mind. She was surprised at the intensity of his emotions, his face falling right before her eyes. His disappointment in her was clear, and she almost changed her mind again when she saw how heartbroken he was. She desperately wanted him to be happy, but she could see that she would not be able to fix this.
"You've literally ripped out my heart and stomped on it," he despaired, reminding her of the violence of her own feelings a year back.
She tried to make it up to him, assuring him they would still be friends, that she still cared for him, but she knew it was futile. She cursed herself for inflicting that kind of pain on another person, she knew exactly how he felt.
A week later Ed was still avoiding her and she was still miserable about the whole thing, guilt-ridden and concerned about him. She slumped down at the dinner table next to George, rubbing her forehead.
"I just down know what else I can do, you know?" sighing in frustration.
"Look, all you can do is say sorry. The rest is going to take time, that's all," she comforted.
Just then a group of boys joined them at the table, including two of her least favourite meal companions, Rich and Jackson. She rolled her eyes discreetly at George and left their conversation dead. She tried to finish her dinner as quickly as possible so she could escape the tense moment, she wasn't in the mood for this today.
"So I heard you ditched Ed, Kepner?" Rich started, shooting her a look of disgust. When she didn't reply he continued.
"That was a little harsh, don't you think? The guy's heartbroken" he continued, gulping down big bites as he spoke.
"Hey, Rich, remember when I asked your opinion?", she snapped. "Yeah, me neither."
She could hear George and the other girls snickering next to her as Rich's face dropped. Next to him Jackson was quietly grinning to himself. But Rich wasn't done with her yet.
"Ed's a good guy, you know" he carried on, undeterred by the fact that April had now stood up, ready to leave, her dinner still half-finished.
"He deserves better than you leading him on for months and then dropping him like it's nothing."
He was set to continue his tirade until a heavy hand landed on his arm, cautioning him to stop.
"Leave it, Rich," Jackson warned him quietly.
She couldn't get out of there fast enough.
Later, April set out on her usual run around campus, eager to focus her mind on something other than her nagging guilt. Rich's words had stuck with her, still ringing in her ears, so she ran a little farther and a little harder than normal, feet thudding on the asphalt, dim street lights barely lighting her path. She felt her hamstring stretch and snap in the back of her thigh, halting her pace before the subsequent shooting pain forced her to stop. She grabbed her leg, soothing it by rubbing small circles down the back.
Looking around for a place to stretch she came face to face with Jackson. She went to move past him, her mind now programmed to ignore. Suddenly he blocked her path, towering above her, eyes glaring at her. He'd grown over the course of the year, frame wider, shoulders broader, several inches taller, making it impossible for her to slip past.
"What?" she huffed impatiently, refusing to meet his eyes.
He remained motionless, still blocking her, eyes burning into her. She grew increasingly frustrated with him, placing her hands on her hips in defiance, exhaling as she realised he would not let her pass until she faced him. She finally met his gaze, motioning at him to speak. He still said nothing, eyes searching hers, expressing some unnamed emotion at her. He leaned in, carefully grabbing a long lock of her fiery red hair that had escaped her ruffled, sweaty pony tail. Her eyes narrowed before she swiftly and viciously slapped his hand away.
"What do you want, Jackson?" her tone a little angrier now.
He hesitated before he spoke, clearly set back by her sudden violence.
"I fucking miss you, ok?" he blurted out, face filled with intent.
She recoiled at his words, backing away from him.
"You're an asshole" she spat at him, before turning on her heel and walking the long way way to her dorm, clutching her aching thigh all the way.